Plane Crashes and Accident Clusters

An attempt to explain why there seems to have been a “significant uptick” in air travel accidents in Asia in the last 12 months. 

I had an exchange on Twitter just a few days ago in the wake of the latest accident to affect an Asia-based air carrier in Taiwan. In case you missed it, on Wednesday, 4 February, a TransAsia flight crashed into the Taipei River.

We are nearly 12 months away from the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on 8 March 2014. To recap, starting with that one:

+  March 2014 – Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappears
+  July 2014 – Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot down over eastern Ukraine
+  July 2014 – TransAsia Airways GE222 crashed during a second attempt to land
+ December 2014 – AirAsia Flight 8501 crashed into the Java Sea
+ February 2015 – TransAsia Airways GE235 crashed into the Taipei River

Now, at this point, most people would say if you are thinking about taking a plane to, from, within Asia, you may want to reconsider, but we know better, right?

Well. That is what we need to talk about. Do we know better and is it safe to take a plane in the region right now? 

Statistically speaking, this is not meaningful. Focus on the first part of that sentence, not the second. Of course the loss of human life, even one, is meaningful. But in the eyes of the statisticians, it is not. How do we get to that conclusion?

There is this wonderful just-the-numbers site, that sums up for us air crashes from 1950-2010. There are charts too, some neat facts, some “what are your chances of being in a fatal air crash” stats, too, but there are some things immediately evident:

  • The number of accidents has slowly been falling over time
  • Your odds are low of being in ac fatal crash
  • You generally have a 1 of 4 chance of survival if your plane is going down
  • The majority of “notable” accidents have occurred in the earlier decades of plane travel

So, you probably should take the flight to Singapore. Or Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, or Taiwan. Island-hop. Catch as many flights as you want.

You see, the better we get at making air travel safe, irrationally, the worse we see any accident. My parents were taking planes in the late 1960s, early 1970s; they can tell you stories which would make you never get on a plane again. Back then, air travel was statistically terrifying.

But, it is not just that which is creating this impression that air travel, at least in Asia, is a chancy thing. It is also this:

We all know about it.

The world is smaller and closer together, today, than it ever has been in the history of humankind. As of 2013, the World Bank put the estimated population of Planet Earth at somewhere around 7.125 billion

To put that in context:

  • In 2011, Ward’s Auto guessed that we had surpassed 1 billion cars on Earth – so that means approximately 1 in 7 people (statistically speaking) have a car
  • China has about 1.4 billion people – so if China replicated itself just 5 times over, that would be entire world, OR
  • If China and India got together, they would have to replicate themselves just under 3 times over to equal the entire world
  • There are nearly 6.8 billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world – so that means nearly every person (statistically speaking) on planet Earth has a cell phone

It is the last point that I care about because a cell phone means, especially in developing countries, the ability to text. You may not be able to travel, but you can say something about life is like where you are and hear how it is in other places. You may not have a stable power grid, but you can say something about the world you that you are building.

You may not be able to send a video, but you can tell the world what you saw.

And that means that it is very hard for a tree to fall in the forest and for no one to hear it. That means that the tree or in this case, the planes, always feel like they are falling. And everybody, every where knows about it.

Last point, perhaps most important, ideas are viral. There is a field of study called “applied memetics” – leave it to the marketing guys to attempt to quantify why they can create a ‘meme’ and watch it travel – and it is drawn from an idea Richard Dawkins put down to describe why religion ‘catches’. I will not touch that here, suffice to say, Dawkins was not a fan of religion and if you are not, it gives you some straws to grasp.

However, there is something to the thought that ideas can travel. I Can Has Cheezburger, anyone? But why should this matter?

Well, we have proven three things already:

  1. Air travel has gotten better, therefore, irrationally, accidents look worse (I hate to make this comparison, but if you are an acne-ridden teenager, one more pimple makes no difference, but if you have perfect skin, one or two will drive you mad).
  2. The world is closer together than ever before because of technology so things happen underneath a global microscope.
  3. Ideas travel.

The linchpin in this theory is a simple question that I will put to anyone who has ever:

  • Cut themselves in the kitchen with a large knife
  • Stubbed their toe on the baseboard entering a room
  • Knocked into the sharp edge of a table
  • Been the driver in a car accident

What did you do after that happened? I’ll tell you:

You became cautious. You became so cautious that sometimes you over-corrected to ensure that you did not have the same “accident” again.

I think the pilots in Asia are going through a phase of over-correction. They are making rookie mistakes. And it is probably not just them, but their entire community: air traffic controllers second-guessing themselves, mechanics checking twice and thrice — everyone has been taken by this idea, this meme, that it feels dangerous to take a plane in Asia (and perception is a sort of reality) therefore you have to be careful, over-careful in fact, every step along the way to not make it true.

The actual term for the result for this is accident clusters and according to the laws of probability, this ‘uptick’ is to be expected. But that says what, it doesn’t say how and why.

This quirky theory of the day was an attempt to explain why. I could be way off base, but then again–

You tell me: is it or is it not equally as safe to take a plane in Asia versus anywhere else on the globe right now?

(I will never judge your answer).

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