Reflecting On Airline Safety And What Really Matters In Life

Yesterday’s news about MH370 has just left me heartbroken, and I’m sure I’m not alone. This is something that hits our community hard, because I’m sure most of us could have imagined taking that flight.

While it shouldn’t be that way, I think there are flights we can picture ourselves on and flights we can’t picture ourselves on, and subconsciously it impacts our feelings. If an Air Koryo flight out of Pyongyang goes down I’d feel horribly, but I wouldn’t totally be able to relate. Because flying them seems foreign to me, while flying an airline like Malaysia Airlines feels like “home” to me (even if they’re on the other side of the globe).

I’ve flown Malaysia Airlines several times before and have always enjoyed my flights on them. I’ve even flown the exact airframe that is missing, 9M-MRO, which feels somewhat surreal.

While it impacts us, I can’t even imagine how it impacts anyone that was involved directly in any way. Not only the families of the passengers and crew, but also the last people to interact with them, the check-in agents working that flight, passengers that may have sat next to them on connections, the people that were apparently booked on the flight but missed it, the crew hotel they were going to stay at in Beijing (how surreal it must be to have those 12 rooms empty), etc.

There aren’t words that can describe my sympathy, other than that I’m really sorry, that they’re in my thoughts, and that I’m sending the best vibes possible their way.

And we’re not talking “oh, you’re in my thoughts” in the same way that you say to someone taking an exam or something. I literally can’t get these people out of my thoughts, no matter how hard I try. I couldn’t sleep for even a minute last night, and was just in bed with the lights off thinking. And thinking. And thinking. And I’m sure I’m not alone (to clarify, I’m referring to my thoughts and not my bed).

I started writing a post about Emirates offering up to a 175% bonus for flights on Virgin America. And I couldn’t get myself to publish it, because who really freaking cares? Does it matter?

Miles don’t matter. The best premium cabin products don’t matter. Credit card sign-up bonuses don’t matter. Nothing matters, other than people.

I saw the movie “Hotel Rwanda” years ago, and one of the scenes that has always stayed with me is when they show the footage of the atrocities happening in Rwanda:

Paul Rusesabagina: I am glad that you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.
Jack: Yeah and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?
Paul Rusesabagina: How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?
Jack: I think if people see this footage they’ll say, “oh my God that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.
[pause]
Jack: What the hell do I know?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Z09r1Jvavk

My reaction to this incident is kind of the opposite.

There’s nothing we can do. Flying is so damn safe. This is potentially the first truly major 777 “incident” in the nearly 20 years it has been flying.

But we want to know exactly what happened, and understandably so. But at the same time it’s totally out of our control, and the best we can do is be patient as the relevant authorities do their jobs.

I think what makes this the most bizarre “incident” I can ever remember is that more 24 hours after they lost contact the plane is still “lost.” This isn’t like Air France 447 where it went down in the most remote part of the ocean. Instead the first half of the flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is mostly over or very close to land, with the exception of a few hundred miles over the Gulf of Thailand. And if the plane was reasonably close to the Vietnamese coast (as they expect), it’s an area heavily populated by fishing boats.

MH370-Flight-Plan

I don’t even want to begin to speculate, but this truly is borderline “Twilight Zone” weird, that in 2014 a plane can not be found for so long. Hell, I can’t even use the internet without being tracked, so when a 500,000+ pound plane literally disappears…

None of that is the point of this post, though.

When tragedies like this happen I always question what I do. Why would I ever get on a plane again if I can avoid it? I have parents, and I can’t possibly do that to them. My oldest brother passed away in an (non-airplane) accident at a young age, so I’m extra careful for my mother’s sake if nothing else.

After my Royal Jordanian flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong last year, my perspective on flying really changed. For six months I was legitimately terrified of flying. I would sweat profusely and even shake every time there was turbulence. But fortunately I recently got over that.

The Royal Jordanian flight taught me a few things that I figured I’d share in light of MH370.

Flying is incredibly safe.

We all know that. But at the same time the thing that bothers me the most about the possibility of dying on a plane isn’t actually dying, but the uncertainty and second-guessing it will bring to my loved ones.

But I’ve gotten to the point where I’m at ease with that. First of all, I always send my parents my itineraries when flying. Always. If something were to ever happen, I don’t want them having to second-guess whether I was on a flight or not. When I flew Royal Jordanian and thought I had minutes to live, I wasn’t worried about dying, but was so angry at myself for not telling my parents exactly which flight I was on.

Life is about people.

My parents are the most important people in my life. I talk to my mom probably five times a day. I call her so often that if she doesn’t hear from me for three hours she assumes I’m dead. One day last week I only called her once, and she told me “I feel like we never talk anymore.” I guess that’s a good thing?

But part of that is being on the same page as my parents. My mom used to say “I don’t know what I’d do with myself if you ever died while flying.” And she’s not like that anymore.

She understands it’s my hobby. She understands it’s my passion. She understands how safe it is. And she understands that it’s truly what I would’ve wanted to do. When she starts with “what if” scenarios, I remind her of all the danger I could have been in on the ground if I hadn’t flown the three million plus miles that I have.

I don’t believe in things being “meant to be,” but I do believe that we only live once, and that we have to make the most of it. Flying is outrageously safe, and as far as I’m concerned the smartest thing we can do is travel as much as possible, even in light of this.

You can’t take material goods with you when you die, but you can leave memories, so make the most of it. And as the popular quote goes, “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

So with this off my chest it’s back to normal. Or at least on the surface.

I’ll keep thinking about this 99% of the time for the near future, but I have to be more productive than that. Life must go on, and the best we can do is learn from what happened and keep those involved in our thoughts. Now it’s time for more of your regularly scheduled programming, from the best ways to redeem miles to complaining about bad turndown service and shoddy bathroom cleaning on planes.

Anyway, I’m sorry this post is so long and jumbled. Again, my thoughts are with everyone involved with MH370 more than I could ever express. I just can’t even imagine…

It certainly reminds me of all the things I’m thankful for, not the least the which is you guys.

Safe travels, everyone.

Comments

  1. Flying is damn safe. That’s exactly the point. There are far more dangerous hobbies, and you, your parents, and everyone else that matters should recognize that.

    I’m sure many of us were unable to sleep last night…

    Sympathies and thoughts to the flight crew, passengers and their loved ones…

  2. I love and appreciate this post. It helps put our hobbies into perspective. I’m thankful for you posting this today.

  3. Probably one of the best posts you’ve written, thanks for putting into words how many of us feel

  4. Well said. I think you reflect what a lot of humans instinctively feel at a time like this, which is a need to relate, to connect. You flew that exact aircraft. That IS surreal. One week ago I was in Southeast Asia, on an island off the coast of Vietnam not 150 miles from where the flight disappeared. I didn’t fly Malaysian, and I wouldn’t have seen that flight explode midair even I’d been on the island– but it’s hard not to feel the extra “pull.” The, “wow, that could have been me.” The realization that I flew 8 segments in SE Asia on planes FAR less reliable than the 777. Those things make us human. They allow us to feel when we might otherwise write things off so as not to be too numb.

    For whatever reason yesterday afternoon (many, many hours before any of this news became public) I was in a Wikipedia k-hole looking up “flight safety” and all the different kinds of ways that planes can go down, and reading about specific instances of wind shear, of stalling, of pilot error, etc. It was a little morbid of me — but I was transfixed. So I feel now guilty– irrationally so, because it wasn’t like my brief research into plane crashes yesterday had any causal effect whatsoever– for being fascinated by things that ultimately are about human life, not about equipment. The images of the crying relatives in Beijing, and especially of the Arrivals Board with the ominous “Delayed” message — are just haunting.

    All of that Wikipedia time yesterday did lead me to one area of hope, though– the story of the girl, the lone 4-year old survivor of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 that crashed in Detroit in 1987. It’s kind of insane and the definition of a miracle. Maybe it’s worth reading about her and reflecting on the randomness of life — and plane travel:

    http://bigstory.ap.org/article/survivor-1987-mich-plane-crash-breaks-silence

  5. Ben, thanks for such an insightful posting. We should never lose sight of what’s really important in life.

  6. I am currently in Macau, and that aircraft was suppose to fly more or less over my head last night, but it did not.

    I was paralyzed when I heard the news yesterday and all my plans in Macau went bust, because I care. My thoughts are with these people on that MH flight and their relatives.

    I just relocated to Beijing and flown that route in September 2013

  7. Thanks for a very thoughtful and reflective piece of writing. Thoughts are with everyone on board and their friends and family.

  8. A very nice, thoughtful and welcome post. And as the news unfolds that this could be an airline security issue rather than an airline safety matter.

  9. Very well put, Ben! Myself contemplated that it could have been me! I could have been on that flight!!! As a dear enthusiast to MH and I have flown on their 777’s several times, I could not get pass the souls on that a/c (although my presumption is not definitive yet). I truly agree with you! My thoughts and prayers go out to every soul on board and their families and friends!

  10. Ben, I’ve been following your blog since the beginning. This is without doubt your most thoughtful and insightful piece yet. Thank you for taking time for sharing your thoughts on this tragic subject and recognizing what tuly matters. This obviously hit very close to home for many of us in our little corner of the interwebs.

  11. Thank You for sharing your thoughts with us, lucky. Really human and touching. I agree with every comma. And even not knowing you personally, I feel really proud of you. You can see a huge process of maturation in your posts. Congratulate your parents because I think they have done a great job and I’m sure they’re really proud of you too.
    Be happy.

  12. Matt:

    You hit the hammer right on the head! Regardless of the outcome here, this is made surface a very serious issue. According to a CNN report, only two airlines currently verify whether passports are stolen through a system called i-check via interpol. How, in an era of computers, we can’t have have requirements that mandate these checks is beyond me. From what I have read, at least one or the two stolen passports were entered into a system that would have been found by i-check. As I said, this may or may not come into play with this particular situation, but in general, it’s scary that a person can get on a plane with a REPORTED stolen passport. Mind boggling.

  13. I did wonder if you were ok when you had not posted for a while. I agree with all the above comments. Thank for sharing Ben; a beautiful written poignant post.

  14. This comment is not about this tragedy. I can’t improve on what you’ve said. This comment is about your blog. I made a couple of similar points in response to your post about the reaction to your China Southern criticism.

    In a novel I like, there is a vignette where everyone in a village writes a novel. It falls on the village librarian to catalogue them. Ultimately, she files them all under “love,” because whatever they may seem to be about, ultimately, that’s what every one of them really is about.

    Roger Ebert liked to say it is not important what a movie is about, but instead how it is about what it is about. So it goes with blogs.

    I think there is wisdom in these two thoughts, and that they are points you seem to understand intuitively. It also is why your blog, among the others in its genre, is most worth reading. One can find the link to the new 65k card all over the place. If you want it to matter — and it seems like you do — how it is about what it’s about is where the money is.

  15. Right there with you in not being able to stop thinking about this. It is hard to grasp that the plane could still be missing when our every move is tracked. Very humbling event, very sad. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  16. A superb post, Ben – sums up my feelings too. I’m a little surprised that of the blogs I follow you are the only one to have written about this, but I’m glad you did.

  17. That was not rambling at all. It was a thought provoking and lovely piece. Thank you for writing it and yes you are not alone in thinking about the people or the flight.

  18. Because we are all family, please share with us what happened to your older brother, unless it’s a family secret.

  19. Because we are all family, please share with us what happened to your older bro, unless it’s a family secret.

  20. Ben,

    Thanks for writing this piece. You wrote what many of us were probably thinking in our heads. I love traveling but only recently I have started flying both domestic and international, primarily on award miles. When I heard the news yesterday, I was very concerned and my ’emotional’ side kicked in and I was almost reevaluating my stance on future air travel. I knew I didn’t have to think like that. Your post helped me connect back to reality again. And I can’t agree more on the point of sending itineraries to your parents or significant other. My mom is just like yours. I guess all moms are.

    Thanks and safe future travels.

  21. Well said. I want to add that your trip reports make me feel more connected to and more empathetic about things like this. In years past I might have heard about something like this – and been saddened but feel like it was a very remote event. This time I could actually picture the inside of the plane and imagine the crew and passengers. Although that makes the incident more difficult to think about, I think it’s ultimately good to have this extra incite into airlines and people in other parts of the world. Thanks for the excellent work you do.

  22. ben:

    i am so happy i have had the privilege to have met and befriended you.

    what you wrote today is a perfect example of why i think you are an amazing person. at the end of the day, our personal connections with others is more valuable than any perks or beenies we ever hope to earn by flying.

    i missed your previous post about your jordanian flight experience but whenever something bad happens to an airliner, i immediately think of you, and hope that you are safe and sound.

    thank you for all that you do, and for reminding us what truly matters in life are the people we love, and those with whom we share a real connection.

    my thoughts are with those whose loved ones may have been lost on MH 370. and they are always with the people i’ve met and befriended on flyertalk, and in many aircrafts around the world. and they are with you today…

  23. Watching CCNTV ( Chinese English channel). They are providing better coverage that CNN.

    This accident, if we can call this, is extremely disturbing. A fairly junior aircraft with a tremendous safety record, no sign of distress, nothing.

    Air India 182 was blown out of the sky but bodies were visible a few hours later. Air France sent lots of messages. But this airplane just disappeared.

    Malaysia airlines is foreign to me, but cannot imagine the agony of the families.
    You said it right, people is all that matter in this world. I guess you can’t take your Ferrari to the other world.

    I have flown three B727 that have crashed months or years after I flew them. Two against terrain in South America, in the late 80s and one that overshot the runway in Benin, Africa ( former 862AA) in 2003. All passengers died. I frightens me every now and then.
    But that wont stop me from flying!

  24. Thanks for such an insightful post, Ben. One reason why I love reading your blog. No ramblings at all, and I relate and I think it’s the same line of thoughts that ran into a lot of people’s minds yesterday, especially in our community where we all love miles and points and flights and flying and aviation.

    I totally agree with you on that people are most important. For that reason along, I tend to frequently wipe out a lot of my own miles and points and chip in to help take my family (particularly my parents, who I love dearly, though they could also annoy me to no end 🙂 to experience many places they would not have otherwise. We had some very very unique memories from some of those trips together, in pictures and in memory that will last for a lifetime.

    I know it’s paranoid, but I always print out a copy of my itinerary and leave it for my family so they know what flight I am on and can track it so that they don’t fret (or if anything happens, they will known which one I’m on).

    This part is also trivial and I sometimes fret about my next of kin not finding access to my accounts (including my frequent flyer accounts) in case something bad happens. (Usually this thought crosses my mind a day or two before my flights). I’d totally want them to use them up if possible, especially given all my time and investment in them.

    Flying is still one of the safest way to travel, so it’s not going to impact my upcoming travel plans.

    My thoughts too are with the families of the victims. Life is short, so I think it’s important to be kind to people, because ultimately, people is what matters at the end.

  25. Talk to Mommy 5x a day?? No wonder you are single…

    As for being heartbroken over a few hundred people dying, why? Why not heartbroken over those that die of starvation and preventable diseases every day? Or is it just you dont give a damn about those people because they don’t get so much media attention?

    Posts like yours show the contemptuously shallow “concern” of most people…

  26. In the past few months I’ve flown numerous flights on Malaysia Airlines 777-200s.

    This is why you’re such a good blogger, Ben. Not for the information.

    It’s because you have heart.

  27. @paul – You’re right that we should be heartbroken about people who die of starvation and preventable diseases every day. But that need not diminish our empathy for fellow flyers. This is a frequent flyer blog. Flying is our hobby. This is our game. For some, like Ben, it’s a livelihood. So while you’re right that we should mourn every death wherever it happens for whatever reason, let us also be free to express compassion for people whom, but by the grace of fate, we might have been.

  28. @ Paul – You are the most cruel, evil person who has ever commented in Lucky’s blog. Poverty-stricken people die as a family. People on MH 370 die alone, worrying their family. Go and think about it. And Mommy’s looked after you for so long, how dare you ignore her.

    Lucky, I followed this up in my own blog and talked about you. Best post you’ve ever written. However why not think things from the bright side? Both Malaysian and the 777 have not had such major incidents for 19-20 years. Read my post please. Am I on the right track, or am I just evil?

  29. Ben et all. Wanted to share a little bit of my life because of this tragedy.

    I flew AV011 as a teenager, and on a flight between FRA and BOG (with stops in CDG anf MAD ). I decided to go upstairs this 747 to experience the FC lounge on the second floor of the jumbo.

    This jumbo did not carry passengers on the second floor, but it was a lounge for FC passengers. The decor was amazing and had replicas of the national museum gold treasures (HK 2000 EL Dorado).

    Normally I would have been told to go back to coach, but this amazing lady, a senior FA in her late 40s, allowed me to tour the FC lounge, and explained me so many things about the airplane and displays. She allowed me to stay there well up to 30 min before landing in BOG.

    A few months later, and to my horror, I learned that she was on duty during AV011 flight crash, same route, but different plane (HK 2910X) , on Nov 27, 1983. I saw her picture in the newspaper and to this date, I cannot forget what an amazing person she was to me.

    Last Nov, it was the 30th anniversary of that tragedy. I can’t forget her kindness. That day, I thought of and prayed for all those passengers and that wonderful crew that died.

    To all of those who lost their lives in the air. Lets pray for their eternal peace.

  30. Really Lucky? Talk to your Mommy 5 times a day? Are you kidding me? Who does that? Maybe I am a little old school but I just can not imagine that. Kind of sad if you ask me.

  31. Well said Paul. What matters to Ben is “can I fly first class?”
    I don’t really understand people who come here to grieve and act like they really care about people onboard that plane.

  32. While I have never flown Malaysia Airlines, and it is impossible for me to know anyone who was lost during this incident, I think the point is that all 227 passengers and 12 crew on board were people – mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, daughters, sons, etc – people who meant something to somebody. And this is just one more reminder of why it’s important to cherish people and create memories … what better way than thru travel?

  33. This hit me more than any other accident since I’d just flown MH about 6 weeks ago (and would have been on 9M-MRO looking at its history had I not changed my origin city from BOM to DEL). I was at BKK airport and one of the first planes I saw after hearing about the crash was an MH 737. I can totally see myself flying that KUL-PEK route.

  34. This evening’s news on the Nine Network Australia put it in some perspective with a story on the missing people from Australia. The most poignant was a shot of the house of Robert and Catherine Lawton in the Brisbane suburb of Springfield Lakes. On the front wall of the house was a sign saying “Nanny and Poppy’s House – grandchildren always welcome”. After the two earthquakes that damaged Christchurch in New Zealand, Paul Weekes decided to make a new life as a mining engineer in Perth, Western Australia. He had just gotten a job on a mining project in Mongolia and was on his way to start work. His three year old son is asking his mother “why hasn’t Daddy skyped us yet?”

  35. One of your best articles Ben, and just saw the news from Australia about the missing Australians which added a human touch to the story.

  36. One of your best posts, lucky. Thank you for always sharing your thoughts and point of view to us.

  37. I really appreciate this post. My husband and I had just arrived in Hong Kong when we heard the news. We are scheduled to fly that exact flight number later this week. It really hit us in a way that I wasn’t expecting. We are constantly checking for updates and talking through different things that could have happened. My thoughts are constantly with these people and their families and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one.

  38. Thx, Ben, for sharing your views in this wonderful written, even emotional post. This horrible news disturbes me a lot as well, and I am looking for updates all the time on the AvHerald and Flyertalk. It seems so surreal and un-2014 that a state-of-the-art aircraft (the 777, my favorite!) by one of the world’s safest carriers went from cruising (the safest of all flight phases) to missing for almost 48 hours. The fact that I fly Malaysian next month does not help either. What a nightmare for those families! I know flying is incredibly safe but this incident and its aftermath will impact (nervous) frequent flyers like me for a long time to come, especially during the time that we will not know what exactly happened to that (still missing) 777.

  39. You have put down the thoughts that were going on my mind since this morning after I read the tragic MH370 disappearance report. I’d like to share my 2 cents.

    I had a flight booked for this afternoon actually a non essential flight for me though I had other means of transport as options. It was a short 1 hour flight in the Q400 bombardier aircraft. After reading the MH370 report this morning I was shattered and my mood became very dull. Whenever I have a flight to take I am very excited as I love flying but today was very different. All the time on my way to the airport my mind was occupied with the 777 disappearance( I m still hoping against hope that the flight has landed some where and all the pax are safe hence not terming as crash yet) just before getting into the flight I texted my mom about the exact take off and landing time though I don’t usually do that. She knows I am travelling that day and I d text her upon landing. But today was different. As the flight took off I was thinking that the MH370 pax would have been calm and composed while take off and probably food service would have been going on one hour into the flight when it according to some latest reports might have disintegrated in the air itself. Coming back to my flight it was a bumpy ride and I was for the first time of my adult life so afraid though it was the regular passing clouds around and the captain came on PA and informed they are deviating from the flight path to avoid the clouds. But I was just damn scared with my mind thinking of my family. We landed safely and I was relieved to be back on ground. It was the most sombre flight I had flown.

    MH370 had one pax from my city. She was flying to PEK on her way to Ulanbator Mangolia to attend a conference. Feeling really sad and my thoughts with her family.

  40. Great post Ben. This is really the best story I’ve read on this airline news, the emotional connection we feel with this news needs to be talked about as much as the facts do.

  41. Paul you’re a firs class s##t to make these comments during an event like this. I hope you grow up soon.

  42. @Ben: +1 to all you’ve said, I too share the concern… the connection to an anonymous planeload of human souls a world away.

    @Paul et. al: So, Ben calls his mom 5x a day? Considering mine is currently slowly dying, and I try to wedge in time with her between three busy jobs, I think Ben’s got the right focus.

    Paul, I suggest you call your mother, and ask her what compassion and empathy are. Somehow that seemed to have fallen through the cracks of your upbringing.

    Safe travels to all.

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