Terror in the skies: it’s a Judeo-Christian hang up
What is it about air travel that evokes in people such morbid fascination?
In his recent essay, A Week at the Airport, philosopher Alain de Botton reckoned that, basically, we’re all both petrified of, and obsessed by, air travel because our various religions have successfully instilled in us a prevailing awe of the skies, of the heavens and of whatever else goes on above the clouds:
“Despite its seeming mundanity, the ritual of flying remains indelibly linked, even in secular times, to the momentous themes of existence. We have heard about too many ascensions, too many voices from heaven, too many airborne angels and saints to ever be able to regard the business of flight from an entirely pedestrian perspective, as we might, say, the act of travelling by train.”
“Notions of the divine, the eternal and the significant accompany us covertly on to our craft, haunting the reading aloud of the safety instructions, the weather announcements made by our captains and, most particularly, our lofty views of the gentle curvature of the earth.”
You need only look to Greek mythology and the story of Icarus – who, in the giddy arousal of flight flew too close to the sun, melted the glue of his feathered wings and plummeted to his death – to know that man’s preoccupation with the mystical qualities of flight predates even the birth of Christ.
This may go some way to explaining the disproportionate air time and column inches the media afford coverage of flight delays, airport rage, terminal security, terror on the runway, terror in the skies, the mile high club, plane food, so-called emergency landings, and so on.
The Australian groupthink about aviation safety is at best shrill, at worst hysterical. It emanates from a few noisy airline customers and the media – both of which feed each other – and egged on by unions that very effectively leverage the issue to extract favourable wage deals.
This is not purely an Australian phenomenon. When he was CEO of British Airways, Sir Rod Eddington famously described the job as analogous to rowing a boat carrying two elephants – one being fixed superannuation obligations and the other uncompetitive labour costs.
The sustained scare campaign around safety and offshore maintenance has, ironically, done inestimable damage to airline employees by damaging their employers’ brands.
Their offshore heavy maintenance is at comparable or lower levels than since a small percentage of maintenance went offshore 40 years ago. Qantas did 92 per cent of its heavy maintenance in Australia in 2009.
Even so, and in stark contrast to the largely uncontested version of reality, offshore maintenance is actually of a very high quality and performed by the same providers that do 100 per cent of heavy maintenance for the likes of Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Emirates. Does anyone seriously suggest those are not safe airlines?
The campaign against offshore aircraft maintenance is, under an almost sheer veil, all about race. Agitators incite fear on the basis that our planes are being maintained by unskilled, downtrodden Asian serfs using nothing but staplers. It’s the same xenophobic subliminal messaging that underpinned the campaign against the 457 visa program.
Granted, it has been a hugely successful tactic. Do a straw poll at any barbecue or Tupperware party and 95 per cent of people will parrot the line that airline safety isn’t what it used to be since all the aircraft maintenance went offshore.
However, compare the rhetoric with the harsh reality facing the industry:
In the past year, more than 30 airlines have gone to the wall. SwissAir has sunk. JAL has just been bailed by the Japanese Government. British Airways is now all but a carcass – the question is not whether the UK flag carrier will fall over but if Downing Street will come to their rescue. Labour is not particularly enamoured of BA chief Willie Walsh and a rescue package should not be considered a certainty.
The Australian media, broadly speaking, has been breathtakingly delinquent in this debate. Either they can’t be bothered checking or wilfully ignore the indisputable facts of aviation safety. It may be a simple case of the truth getting in the way of a great yarn. And great yarns sell newspapers, boost ratings and increase circulations. Indeed the editor of a major Australian newspaper once confided to me that splashing Qantas on the front page on any given day inevitably boosted the edition’s sales by a significant degree.
And only recently I got stuck into The Punch’s very own Penbo for, as then editor of The Daily Telegraph, for leading the front page with the screechy and grossly inaccurate splash “RUSTBUCKET” following the QF30 diversion to Manila in July 2008. The Air Transport Safety Bureau later concluded that incident was the result of a manufacturer’s fault and not related to the aircraft’s age or condition.
We would all do well to remember that, on a fleet and service measure, Australasian carriers lead the world. Anyone who has flown within the US in recent years would have been lucky enough to pay ten bucks for a tiny bag of pretzels and a 200ml can of tepid Mountain Dew, served by a pissed off attendant bearing a close resemblance to King Tutankhamen.
When it comes to air travel, Aussies and Kiwis don’t realise how good they’ve got it.
- Joe Aston is an adviser at the public affairs firm CPR. He is a former Qantas executive and previously an adviser to then workplace relations minister Joe Hockey.
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