Thursday, December 28, 2006

Air flight and the opportunities to buy into fear, or not

At the moment I'm flying home from visiting my family for Christmass. While many travelers are being affected by the snow in Denver, my flight is being affected by a completely different thing. The airplane is coming from St. Louis, and the airline intends to use this plane to take us to San Francisco. But the plane has been delayed, twice, due to mechanical problems, twice, in leaving from St. Louis to come to us in Chicago. We were originally scheduled to leave Chicago at 8:30 PM but the delays have slipped our departure to 12:00 or later.

It is these mechanical problems which is making for the lesson I'm seeing at this moment.

Many of my fellow passengers are understandably worried. Some are asking This plane has had mechanical problems twice and you're planning to let us fly in it? Are you crazy? The gate agent has been patient and understanding, and explaining how the mechanics check the plane and only allow it to fly if they're confident it is safe.

The lesson is, who to believe, and whether to let fear run the show.

It's easy to let the fear take hold here. We know there's a pair of problems with this plane, why would we want to trust it? On the other hand do any of us know the safety history of any of the planes we've flown in? No. Maybe all the planes we've flown in have had minor mechanical problems, which the mechanics fixed. I, for one, have had zero problems with safe airplanes and that's with three (now) international flights under my belt.

Can one carefully listen to the evidence before them and trust? It is a life and death issue, trusting that the plane will safely get me to my destination. On the other hand driving on highways at highway speeds involves a lot of trust, trust that the others on the road want to drive safely, that they will pay attention to the traffic laws, they'll pay attention to the lane markers, etc. Life involves a lot of trust in others in every moment of every day.

And then in the final analysis perhaps the fear and worry doesn't matter. The gate agent just announced the plane we are to fly on just landed, and that in St. Louis they had changed planes and the one we are to fly on is not the one which had the mechanical problems.

This is so much like many things we can choose to worry about. Often we don't have complete information, the specifics haven't been told to us, etc. In the absence of real information the mind wants to supply the missing information. For example we might hear a neighbor crying repeatedly, screaming, sounding like they're in a lot of anguish. The mind might make up a story without knowing the truth that the neighbors wife is beating him, and that's why he's crying and screaming. But do we know that's the truth? Similarly in this case we did not know the plane had been replaced, we only knew there were delays due to mechanical problems. The mind perhaps thought the airline is a big business, cutting corners, running unsafe airplanes, and we're all going to die because they chose to fly us in an unsafe airplane. But that's not at all what was happening, and instead the airline had responsibly grounded the airplane and sent us a better one.