The boarding process today on all commercial airliners is completely irrational. Consider the following: in return for purchasing a first or business class ticket or being a premier rewards card holder, a customer is granted the privilege of boarding.... first? This makes little sense to me.
If an air traveler is about to give up all control of his or her well-being and board an overcrowded flying tuna can, with parts constructed by the lowest bidder, piloted by a complete stranger, with germ-tainted re-circulated air, with 1/4 inch of aluminum separating them from sudden death at over 35,000 feet, they should have no interest whatsoever in wanting to board first. Wouldn’t they want to board last? Why spend any more time on that plane than need be ?
I’ve discussed my argument with some peers. The most common pushback I get has to do with baggage. Most airlines charge for checked bags. As a result, any bag that can fit in the overhead spaces is placed there, to avoid paying a fee and having to wait to claim your luggage at one’s final destination. Boarding first guarantees you will find space for your luggage. I understand and appreciate this argument, but it doesn’t suffice, especially given how airlines price their seats today. Most basic economy tickets are situated in the rear of the aircraft. Most people place their luggage at or near the row they are assigned. Furthermore, in the business class section of a plane, only those passengers who purchased business class seats can use the overhead bins in that section. Bottom line: people who purchase premium tickets or hold a rewards card should be called to board last, not first.
At The Quintessential Centrist, we are ardent fans of social economist Steve Levitt. Mr. Levitt, who currently plies his trade at the University of Chicago, possesses an uncanny ability to seamlessly explain complicated statistical information using fun, fascinating, real-life examples that keep his students and readers alike engaged and entertained. We recommend his enjoyable books, Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics.
Like most aviation experts, airplane manufactures and operators often make the case that flying is the safest form of travel. In Super Freakonomics, Mr. Levitt makes a similarly compelling case supported by exhaustive data: that driving is safer than flying. It probably is. However, in our view, some of the analytical data comparing the safety of those two respective modes of transportation – while not flawed per se - are materially skewed in favor of driving.
The most commonly used metric to measure safety in the driving vs flying debate is the morbid statistic of fatality rate per mile traveled. Sure enough, on page 65 of Super Freakonomics, Levitt argues, "per mile, driving is much more dangerous than flying." While factually correct, a more granular analysis suggests that this is a misleading statement with limited practical application when considering which mode of transport, air or auto, is truly safer.
When comparing the safety of air travel vs that of an automobile on a per mile basis, one fails to control for an important variable in the equation, the total number of hours of exposure. Consider the following: a commercial jetliner travels ~500 miles per hour (mph) at cruising altitude. A passenger vehicle goes ~70 mph on an open, interstate highway. As Mr. Levitt so eloquently does, let us use a real-world example to help frame our argument. A lady drives for one hour, she travels 70 miles. A week later, she decides to fly for one hour; she goes 500 miles. However, in order to travel a distance of 500 miles in a car, our lady friend would have to drive approximately 7 and 15 minutes, or 7.25 times further than a comparable trip in a plane, leaving a lot more opportunity (time) for bad things to happen. Hence, using per mile metrics when comparing the safety of various means of travel is deceptive, because that form of measurement does not control for the total amount of time spent driving a car vs flying in a plane. If our subject drove and flew for the same amount of time, the data would tell a very different story and airplanes would appear less safe. So if we are going to use fatalities per passenger mile as a default metric upon which to base our analysis, we must also control for the amount of exposure or time spent in each mode of transport; but we don’t.