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Correction “for the record”: A little righteous indignation goes a long way March 18, 2014

Posted by Jason in Writing.
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For you non-aviators out there, a flying-specific piece is probably not helpful in your everyday work.  However, AOPA – the general aviation advocacy and lobbying organization of which I am a member – has acted in a way that I think many business leaders could learn from.

The Malaysian airline accident, along with virtually every other airplane crash, gives news outlets endless fodder – some factual, some not so much – for dramatic stories and interviews.  Just within the U.S., several fatal crashes have rightfully become newsworthy and ABC in particular took the opportunity to highlight some of the danger.

Even as a casual pilot, I note a few inaccuracies in ABC’s characterization of pilot training and the connection (if any) to accidents.  AOPA, as might be expected, worked itself into a froth over the issue.  Blog posts, video responses, letters – all worthy forums for discussing the issues.  In my opinion, however, they’re missing the point.

As a pilot myself, I suffer the “curse of expertise” as much as the next guy.  It’s hard to put yourself in the position of a novice or layperson, but I believe this step is critical to making the right move when faced with some bad press.  And my initial guess is that unless a non-pilot actually lives near a general aviation airport, specifically one of those affected by a crash,

They  do  not  care.

They don’t care that there were 444 rather than 475 fatalities.  They don’t care what the general aviation flight training syllabus contains or how many hours a private pilot has spent with an instructor.  They don’t care that there are more or fewer pilots than before.

AOPA on the other hand feels that these statistics will sway the general public.  Righteous indignation that a news outlet has presented a mostly true, though perhaps factually inaccurate portrayal of their industry (is there an industry that has not experienced this?) has blinded the discussion to what it means to engage with the public.  Rather than explain how the news is all wrong (and by extension, the very people you would like to persuade otherwise), it might be better to acknowledge some of the shortcomings that allow these news stories to exist in the first place.

Like cars, motorcycles, and boats, aircraft come with their own share of risks and rewards.  In fact, the NTSB keeps track of this sort of thing:


In addition, the annual Nall Report breaks down aviation accidents and discusses causes and solutions.  In particular, we can see from the 2010 report that fixed-wing accidents are on a slight downward trend.

Nall 2010 Non-commercial accidents

Nall 2010 Non-commercial accidents

But I would not consider it fair reporting to claim that such a trend is evidence that pilots and instructors are doing everything right, any more than it would be fair to claim that 200 fatal crashes a year means you – YOU! – could be next.  Not that AOPA is quite saying it this way, but one could imagine that if a news outlet held up this chart to tout improved safety, AOPA would probably not make a peep.

Rather, this chart illustrates to me (besides an inexplicable vertical scale) that all other things being equal, we can expect to experience about 1,300 crashes a year, about 3 or 4 every day.

Our challenge as pilots is to keep things from being equal from year to year.

At worst, the ABC piece might discourage a few people who might otherwise consider flight training.  It might give more ammunition to folks who would like to close their local airfield for fear of another crash.  It might lead the NTSB and FAA to implement stricter training requirements, as was done after the Colgan crash in Buffalo.

All of these are valid concerns for pilots and other users of general aviation.  But the solution is not to explain why someone’s fears should be dismissed because the facts weren’t quite right.  No amount of good press will erase a person’s memory as witness or victim of an aircraft accident.  And for the rest of the population, aviation’s righteous indignation that a news outlet would dare publish a piece like this only further alienates the outsiders we would very much like to bring in.

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