THE FINE LINE ON THE ROAD
By Joe Brancatelli
July 10, 2013 --The line between life and death on the road is a fine one, something business travelers learned again over the weekend as we watched the aftermath of the crash landing of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport.
Should we take comfort in the fact that 305 people survived? Be haunted by the loss of the two teenagers who didn't? Both? Neither? Does it matter that more and more crashes are deemed "survivable?"
Experts point to 2009's “Miracle on the Hudson”, when a skilled flight crew expertly ditched a dead aircraft into the waters off Midtown Manhattan and all 155 people were rescued. Skeptics point to Colgan Air Flight 3407 a month later and 400 miles away. A less-than-expert flight crew made terrible mistakes on a snowy Buffalo night and all 49 people on board died.
Should we now dive headlong into preparations to survive a crash and remind ourselves of how to walk away from a broken aircraft? If you do, read my friend Jerome Greer Chandler's fine recap of the must-dos. Or should we logically say, "Who travels with a leather coat in summer just because it might come in handy as a fire shield?"
After 40 years of business travel and 30 years of writing about our lives on the road, I only know two things about airline crashes. We fly and, sometimes, some of us die. And we're all scared and hide it because that's how we allay the fears of the loved ones we leave behind.
Those aren't even original thoughts. In 1999, I wrote a column called We Fly and, Sometimes, Some of Us Die after the overwater disappearance of Egyptair Flight 990. It got me fired because the clay-footed millionaire travel agent who owned the site decided I was too maudlin and it might hurt ticket sales. I got rehired a few days later because a bunch of business travelers wrote to thank him for publishing a column about the randomness of life on the road.
"We've got to take our fear, rational and irrational, and our concerns, logical and otherwise, and bury them at the bottom of our carry-on bags. We've got to fly tomorrow because that is what we do. This is how we live. We've got to lie to our kids and our lovers and our families and tell them that we don't worry about stuff like this. We have to make believe we're invulnerable."
From the perspective of those of us who shuffle on and off airplanes day after day, there is little that Asiana Flight 214 can tell us that we haven't known for years. So what if Lee Gang Guk, the pilot landing the plane, was a "trainee" with just 43 hours of experience flying the Boeing 777? There's no Angie's List for aviators that rates Chesley Sullenberger, the captain credited with the Miracle on the Hudson, as excellent and Lee as a newbie who'd never landed a Boeing 777 at San Francisco. Besides, we never know about the flight crews we get on the airlines we fly.
And what good are statistics that rate airlines and aircraft for "safety?" There'd never been a fatal accident on a Boeing 777 before Asiana Flight 214. Is the plane any less safe now that there has been? It's a given in airline circles that pilots for Korean airlines, many of them former military aviators, have a reputation as "cowboy" fliers. Yet the current safety record of Korean carriers is as good as the U.S. airlines.
In the end, we're back to that fine line between life and death. No matter what the talking-head experts who blather on the cable-news networks claim, there is no reliable way for us business travelers to ever know what side of the line we'll be on.
Like any business traveler, I've had my share of incidents. I was in a private aircraft one winter night in Maine when the pilot said the "magneto is gone" and we landed on a frozen lake. I once had two flights in one day that aborted landings seconds before touchdown because the pilots saw other planes on the runways. I took Amtrak home after the second.
But you know what? The closest I ever came to dying on a business trip was when my ratty old convertible spun out on the ice as I was flying down a highway to make a flight. I was thisclose to hitting a tree at very high speeds.
You say Asiana Flight 214 has put you off flying? I understand. But know this: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says more than 34,000 Americans died in car accidents last year. You can add up all the fatalities caused by commercial aircraft accidents around the world during the last few decades and you won't reach the number of deaths registered just last year on American roads.
Thinking about staying home? I understand. But know this: More than 18,000 people a year die from accidents in their home. Go ahead and joke about dying in the bathtub. But air travel is safer than a soak.
I've long ago given up on trying to figure out what side of the line I'm on when I hit the road. Besides, I've got reservations this weekend at the Hyatt at the Bellevue in Philadelphia. That's the successor hotel to the iconic Bellevue Stratford.
You remember the Bellevue Stratford, right? Thirty-four people died there 37 years ago this month in the first recorded incident of what is now known as Legionnaire's Disease.
Plane crash? Car wrecks? Mystery disease? The line between life and death on the road is too fine for me to discern. But I have reserved a suite this weekend. If I'm on the wrong side of the line, I'm going out in style.