Plane Crashes Are Suddenly Everywhere. It Doesn't Mean What You Think.
You're still not going to be in one. But they do tell us something pretty interesting.
Plane mishaps and/or crashes are suddenly having a big moment.
First, there was last Tuesday’s fiery runway collision between Japan Airlines JAL516 and a smaller plane at the Tokyo airport. Then on Friday over the U.S. state of Oregon, part of the exterior of an Alaska Airlines plane blew out mid-flight. Now inspectors have apparently found other planes with the same defect.
On Thursday, meanwhile, Netflix debuted The Society of the Snow, or La Sociedad de la Nieve, the 2023 film retelling of the infamous 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force flight 571 in the Andes of South America. The movie, which is excellent, is drawing Oscar buzz.
Ironically, the big takeaway from these recent events should be that flying is still incredibly safe. After all, no one was hurt on the Oregon flight, despite the fact that the plane was flying at 16,000 feet (or 4,900 meters). And while five people died on the small government plane that JAL516 collided with, all 367 passengers and twelve crew members were safely evacuated from the passenger jet.
Meanwhile, there were 34.4 million commercial flights in 2023 … and only two accidents, for a grand total of 86 fatalities — an all-time record low.
By contrast, an average of 148 people die every hour on the world’s roads.
There were even survivors on that 1972 flight that crashed in the Andes — although, granted, they had to resort to, you know, cannibalism.
None of this means flying can’t still be nerve-wracking. In 2019, Michael and I were on a flight over the Atlantic when our plane caught on fire — and it was terrifying. It was partly the complete lack of personal control.
And Michael used to work as a flight attendant — for Alaska Airlines, the same airline with the plane that had the window blow out. In 2000, Michael even flew over an oily sheen in the Pacific Ocean that he didn’t yet know was remnants from Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which had just crashed, instantly killing his co-worker friends, Allison and Craig.
That one also hit far too close to home.
All this said, the commercial airline system really does work about as perfectly as any human operation can.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still interesting takeaways from all these mishaps and disasters.
The reason why no one died on that Japan Airlines flight, despite the fact that it burst into flames, is the result of three things: the quick-thinking flight crew, the newer and less combustible material the plane was built from, and the calm, orderly passengers.
Incredibly, people actually listened when the flight attendants said, “Don’t grab your things! Just evacuate the plane.” Literally not one of the 367 passengers tried to retrieve their carry-on luggage — a fact that aviation experts say prevented what could have been a much deadlier disaster.
Then again, the flight was domestic, with a homogenous group of passengers who mostly spoke the same language — and this is exactly the kind of behavior you would expect from a less individualistic, more group-oriented society like Japan.
Strong social trust is also the point of Netflix’s The Society of the Snow, which is based on extensive interviews with the actual survivors of the 1972 crash.
In the movie, the survivors all work together to save themselves and each other — and things don’t immediately or even gradually descend into Lord of the Flies-like savagery. Indeed, the survivors go so far as to give each other permission to use their bodies — that is, eat them — should they too die before being rescued.
Interestingly, in 1964, when a “real-world” example of young boys being stranded at sea actually happened, those boys didn’t become savages either. In short, the classic 1954 William Golding novel is something of a lie.
Could this mean that people aren’t as horrible as we sometimes think they are?
Yes, adults have been complaining about lazy, self-centered youth for all of human history. But, well, modern societies — especially Western ones — also really do seem to be growing increasingly narcissistic and less empathetic.
Whatever’s going on, I hate the current zeitgeist that says: Most of the time, most people are assholes.
Everyone is happy to dump on Lord of the Flies, because most of us hated reading it back in school.
Nonetheless, the novel’s deep cynicism is alive and well — in the massive wave of dystopian stories that has engulfed us all, including TV shows like Black Mirror (which I love) and Squid Game (which I don’t).
There’s even an entire sub-genre of sour social justice movies, including Parasite (2019), Promising Young Woman (2020), and The White Tiger (2021), that seems to be arguing that people are so fundamentally awful that it’s perfectly understandable when the main character slaughters some.
As for me, these days, I find myself gravitating toward the bittersweet optimism and fundamental decency of movies like The Society of the Snow — and finding solace in the real-world examples of the people and crew on the flights in Japan and Oregon.
Am I being naive?
Eh, maybe, but I don’t think so. Most people aren’t assholes — and they won’t ever be, not unless we all start acting like they are.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out my new newsletter about my books and movies at www.BrentHartinger.com.