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The Miracle of Flight

A recent post on asked readers to comment on a plan to install rear-facing seats on airplanes.

The options for commenting were basically: a) I don’t like it b) I like it fine; and c) Whatever, no comment, who cares, people should just be happy airlines provide the miracle of flight, so let them do whatever they want.

For the most part, I am in camp C. I am constantly amazed at how unamazed we are at the efficacy, safety, and low cost of airline travel – and especially at the engineering marvel that it represents. Even though I have a brother who is a pilot, and have had the science of flight explained to me many times, the whole prospect still strikes me as something bordering on the miraculous. Yesterday, getting ready to take off in Washington, D.C., I watched as the plane ahead of us swooped skyward, the Washington Monument gleaming in the background, and I was pretty much awestruck by the sight.

What awes me most about commercial air travel is the safety. I was reminded of this today when reading a Reuters article that summarized a new safety report from an industry group called the International Air Transport Association. It noted that Russia and the other C.I.S. members are still, as in previous years, the most dangerous places in the world to fly, with an accident rate 13 times the global average. (This is why my wife, who spent years in Russia as a photographer, always referred to the national airline as “Aeroflop.”) But the real news is that, even including Russia, there were only 77 major global accidents in 2006, down from 111 in 2005. “That’s one accident per 1.5 million flights on Western-built aircraft,” as USA Today noted.

One accident per 1.5 million flights! That’s the equivalent of you and 100 of your friends taking one flight every day of the year for 40 years straight. For something as complicated as flying, this is a monumentally low fail rate. Furthermore, as USA Today summarized, the key factors in the accidents were “bad weather, miscommunication and lapses in crew training.” But not, notably, equipment failure or aeronautical miscalculation.

Like most people who fly a lot, I find it all too easy to track the minor and major infractions committed by airline companies. In just the past week, I witnessed at least a half dozen idiocies. But I’m going to put them aside. Especially this week, with the horrible news of the Virginia Tech shooting and a focus on the things that occasionally go wrong in any given society, I’d rather simply appreciate something that so often goes so right.

The families of those Virginia Tech victims will be doing a lot of flying this week, and with all their sorrow, the last thing they should have to worry about is their own safety as they get on an airplane. Fortunately, they don’t have to.