Let me explane
This has been one of those weeks. Geoffrey has a one-month restoration project that takes place at night in DT LA, so our whole household schedule is turned upside down here and that means none of us is really getting any sleep. That gives me a chance to binge watch my favorite series, so I am going through all my Mad Men seasons, In Treatment, The Good Wife, Homeland and Bill Maher. I am also reading this fascinating book that my cousin — who visited from England this week — suggested and finishing up on my last sweater project until the autumn.
I am also on news-watch, awaiting the outcome of the Iran negotiations as we are on the verge of an historic agreement that will avert another unthinkable war in the ME. Another interesting storm brewing is that over whether or not we should ‘primary’ our progressive 2016 presidential candidate — why would anyone want to be used to supposedly polish another candidate’s positions? From what I can see, Clinton is fairly progressive on all major issues and so I don’t need to waste my time listening to let’s say, Bernie Sanders (who I love!) when I know she will do what she can as best she can given the tight constraints of the Presidency. By the way, I will miss Harry Reid. He is my antithesis except in one regard: he is a relentless progressive looking out for the average American and for that I am grateful to him.
But, as everyone knows, our news has been dominated by the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. I should have included all the airplane photos I have taken over the past few years but when I looked at them, they seemed rather ordinary and so I am just posting some more pictures taken in our garden this month, instead.
Ah, where do I begin on this subject. As those of you who know me will remember, I am a nervous flyer. It began out of the blue on a flight back from Italy on a 747 decades ago and I had just about conquered it with reason and statistics when 9/11 came along and set me back.
So, here I am, having flown hundreds of times and every one of them a nailbiter during takeoff. Ironically, most of the accidents that have happened in the recent past have occurred during landings, but for some reason, those don’t bother me. It is clearly an irrational phobia that I have had a hard time tracing to any particular incident.
Or is it?
Before I get to that. I have had some scary experiences on planes — not that first time I realized I was fearful of flying, that was a perfect flight. But before and after. I remember taking off from the airport near Cornell in an ice storm — we literally shimmied along the runway in a very small, old 727 before getting up into the air and over the storm. Another time, while I was in school and traveling to Miami with my dad, there was an erratic takeoff and a hard, bumpy landing with us bouncing up in the air a few times before coming to a stop. It was terrifying, and as we deplaned, we could see the pilot, clearly inebriated, arguing with some of the passengers.
Yet another time, my family was on a short hop from Florida to St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands. We were on a Prinair prop jet that seated about two dozen people on, wait for it, folding chairs. I am not exaggerating. If you know the airport in St. Thomas, it is on a flat valley surrounded by mountains. When planes land, they have to literally dive down steeply to get past the mountains and hit the runway (a very short one) at just the right moment in order to have enough stopping distance. When this occurred, the chairs we were only perched on slid forward toward the cockpit.
Another incident occurred while we were traveling to Rio from New York and about one hour into the flight on Varig, the 747 smacked into something, probably a bank of thick clouds and there was a huge thump and drop that almost made me faint. It was at night, which is the worst time to encounter something like this. This flight was after my infamous Italy trauma so for 12 hours, I was in hell wondering if we would make it.
Finally, I was on a flight from NY to San Juan, Puerto Rico one time, reveling in a luxurious 1st class seat with a huge buffet at the front of our cabin on an American Airlines luxury liner (my fave at the time and pre-Italy flight) when the plane encountered a thunderstorm and started bouncing all over the place. All the women in first class, presumably from Puerto Rico, started screaming ‘Ay, Mio Dios!’ or, ‘Mi Corazon!’. You can imagine what an atmosphere that created.
So, to this day, I have had to grapple with my fears on take-off and any time there is turbulence. I try to view this both as a behaviorist and an individual, trying to scour my past and my psyche to explain this at one time thought to be irrational trepidation. I have flown at least twice a year on average, my entire life, so clearly being afraid to step on a plane is a problem and interferes with my peace of mind. I don’t do it casually any more and that was one of the many reasons I didn’t go on the in-law’s trip to Hawaii last summer.
I can read all the statistics on modes of transportation and their relative track records, but it still comes down to an increasingly cost-driven, for-profit industry that is paying its pilots half of what they made in the 1950s, while demanding twice to three times the intellect. Today’s crop of pilots, unlike those at the start of the aviation industry, have little experience flying under stressful conditions. Most of the pilots of the 50s to 70s were war vets with nerves of steel and incomparable experience encountering novel situations in flight.
Add to this the fact that today most aircraft are computerized and take the control out of the hands of the pilot altogether. On top of having young and unseasoned people in the cockpit (on 9525, early 30s, late 20s), they just cannot fly the plane manually the way older pilots can. Over and over again, there have been accidents caused when they become confused due to an an electronic glitch. I scratched Air France because of those malfunctioning and ridiculous pitot tubes.
So, I have a complex formula that I apply to choosing a flight. Some of the parameters I consider are the maker of the plane, preferring Boeing to the rest, the engines — no Rolls Royces; the size of the plane, 757 and larger, only. The track record of the airline, United and Delta and perhaps Southwest are my only carriers now. I used to like Swiss Air and Lufthansa but no more European carriers for me for all sorts of reasons, some of which I spoke about in earlier posts.
I sit over the wings, one row behind the doors. I wear sturdy shoes and cotton socks, comfortable skinny pants and warm layered shirts and tops — no synthetics to melt into the skin in a fire. I carry a small smoke mask. I take no substances at all for calming purposes — except SamE and Calc/Magnesium, and immediately don a sleep mask and ear buds to block the whole experience out. I carry my own light healthy snacks and water. I pack only a carry-on bag that I can put right in front of me, under the seat.
I make sure I am rested but I want to be upright and alert instantly so I can get out of that plane, climbing over the row in front of me and out onto the wing, if need be. I wear my ID around my waist or put it in a pocket with my phone so there is no temptation to waste time grabbing anything. I never take any of their refreshments and I wipe down the tray and the seat back and arms with an alcohol towlette, to remove germs. Then I put my own towel behind my head. Planes are petri dishes for many things, including MRSA.
What an ordeal. Who needs it?
There are airports I avoid as being notoriously unsafe for differing reasons: JFK, La Guardia, Boston, Atlanta, SFO, and LAX. When I am sitting waiting to board, I check out every passenger and the crew as well. Believe me, I would walk away now if I saw anything that set off my alarm bells.
But let me say that what the authorities saw in the cell video snippet on 9525 is exactly why I think hard before flying. It is not death that deters me. It is the chaos and pandemonium, the terror that those poor people experienced for a full 8 minutes while that plane dove into the Alps. That is what I want to avoid if I can. Why put myself through that? For what? Luckily I have been on every continent except Antartica and Australia/New Zealand. I have traveled to every type of culture, and often. I don’t need to see the world anymore. I get it, appreciate it, and can leave it there. In fact, those memories stay intact if I don’t return to see places ruined or perilous (like France, which I love).
Flying poses a certain type of dilemma: statistically it is unlikely that any of us will be involved in a fatal plane disaster. However, if we were to be one of the unlucky who were 38,000 feet in the air when something goes terribly wrong, it is 100% certain that we won’t survive and will be traumatized horribly in the process.
That is what I reject and want to avert. Yes, mechanically airplanes are safer and more sophisticated than ever. But all the statistics are based on a time when pilots were mature, trained, experienced and seasoned; when no terrorists could figure out ways to destroy planes at every stage; when you didn’t need to fear the baggage handlers or foolish young men thinking they are going to heaven by blowing themselves to smithereens; when airlines weren’t trying to make their CEOs and shareholders millionaires and billionaires but actually provided a pleasurable experience to the customer, whom they at one time valued and rewarded. Today you sit in an 18″ square, hard seat, on a dirty aircraft barely cleaned or maintained between flights, built by lowest bidders and mechanics with little or no training and skill, paying dearly for cheap microwaved cafeteria food and for each bag you entrust them to send with you to your destination.
No thanks, folks. I will travel by car or train first. This latest incident is not unusual by comparison to what it would have been even fifteen years ago. I am ex’ing plane travel for the forseeable future, probably including the family trip to Costa Rica this summer. Nope, I have enough stress living in a place with only twelve months of groundwater remaining and political gridlock. I don’t need to put my life in the hands of these people who value me so little.
Images: Beth Byrnes / more of the Valencia yard