Why are we so fascinated with plane crashes?

As Ed noted this morning, we’ve lost another passenger jet, this time in France. This is a tragic event, with more than a hundred people most likely having lost their lives. But even as we pause for a sober moment of reflection, I have an unpopular opinion to confess here. For those of us who spend our days covering and wading through the news – particularly in political circles – a story such as this breaking first thing in the morning brings an additional, unpleasant jolt to the system. While it no doubt paints me in a very unflattering light, the second reaction I had upon hearing the news was, “well… there goes the news cycle for the morning.”

Insensitive or not, it certainly proved true. Every television news outlet went into an immediate pivot and the entirety of some morning shows switched over to All Plane Crash All The Time. We observed the usual parade of aviation experts for each network being dragged out of bed and into studios or in front of their Skype camera setups, each beginning with the default caveat, “we don’t want to speculate at this early stage, but…” before launching into an hour or more of speculating. And this, of course, shuts down the news machine for the better part of a day.

But whenever a tragedy such as this happens, I have to wonder yet again why we are so fascinated with plane crashes. Obviously any large scale loss of life is news, but a plane going down seems to resonate far more strongly with the public. I suspect that the reason for this is because of our instinctual aversion to conditions which are inherently unnatural to us. This applies to the nervous (or panicking) first time flyer just as much as the seasoned road warrior with enough frequent flyer miles to buy their own private jet… deep down in some section of our lizard hind brains, we are afraid of flying.

We lose far more people to other travel related problems all of the time. Globally speaking, there are an average of 1.3 million people killed in automobile accidents each year, or nearly 3,300 per day. In the United States alone we average slightly more than one hundred car crash deaths every single day… two thirds as many as are presumed lost in this latest airline catastrophe. And yet we don’t feel that same type of fear when we get into our cars as we do when the engines ramp up on the tarmac and our plane begins to accelerate toward takeoff.

I think it’s just something hardwired into our biological circuitry. There’s something uniquely terrifying about hurtling through the air 35K feet above Mother Earth. It’s an unnatural condition, and one which we never manage to entirely ignore because we are landlocked creatures by nature. I still recall an only half joking comment my father made in the weeks before I left for Navy boot camp on this subject. He was an Army man and had little use for the other branches. When asked, he said that you could have a choice of riding in a Jeep, on a ship or in a plane. “If my Jeep breaks down,” he said, “I can get out and walk.”

That’s probably the root of it right there. We know in a logical sense that our car might be in a fatal accident. But we also know that if we survive the initial crash, there’s a fair chance that we might get out and walk or crawl away from the danger. When the plane goes into a dive from five miles up there are no such comforting thoughts in our minds.

Perhaps I’ve been too hard on CNN for their endless plane crash coverage. Sure, it drives a lot of us crazy, but they are in business to serve up what the people want. And plane crashes are a real life horror show that nearly everyone can relate to on a personal, if very unpleasant level.