Published November 12, 2021 – Last Update December 8, 2022
Coincidences and misunderstandings are two factors that determine much of your life. Until halfway through high school, I wanted to become a captain on passenger ships. Not strange for someone born and raised in Rotterdam, a city with one of the largest harbors of the world, whose grandfather had sailed as a barber on the Holland-America Line. In my childhood the HAL still carried passengers to New York and back and their newest flagship, the impressive steamship Rotterdam, now a hotel-cum-conference center, came into service two years before I went to high school.
Ocean of Air
Halfway through high school however, through a lucky coincidence, I took a turn towards aviation. Lucky, because when I joined KLM six years later, the era of the great passenger ships was almost over. In 1970 the Boeing 747 entered the market and from that moment on, transporting passengers by ship was no longer possible. The depreciation alone of a ship per passenger per kilometer is ten times higher than that of a 747. On top of that, despite the low speed, the fuel consumption of a passenger ship per passenger is seven times higher than that of an aircraft.
So, instead of the ocean of water, the ocean of air became my domain for forty years. Two years of pilot training at the Government Civil Flight Academy, two years as conscripted officer pilot with the Dutch Royal Naval Air Force, and thirty-six years piloting KLM aircraft all over the world.
In those forty years I learned three things. The first lesson was the most important: the world is fundamentally unpredictable. You can have a great flight plan and a well-maintained aircraft, but things tend to go wrong and/or fail and high in the sky there is no place hide. It comes down to your own knowledge and skills. So, you better keep these up to date. In addition, trying to prevent things from going wrong is useful, to a certain extent, but never sufficient. You also need resilience; the capacity to recognize that something goes wrong and to absorb the consequences, and the ability to then analyze and solve the problem.
The second lesson was that you only achieve a high level of safety and of quality by structurally learning from everything that goes wrong. Also, and especially, when things go wrong because of your own mistakes and stupidity. Such a learning culture has grown spontaneously in aviation, but is relatively rare in other areas. I wrote a few articles about this, which led to a series of guest lectures at Twente University and the chairmanship of DEGAS, a council advising the Minister of Infrastructure and Waterworks. That role was discontinued in 2011 in the context of budget cuts, but due to persistent demand from domains outside aviation, we decided to continue our service independently.
Thinking and Acting
The third lesson was that, at least in a cockpit, facts and a quick analysis are important, followed by the direct implementation of a plan, with constant monitoring of the results. Actions based on perceptions and emotions will go dramatically wrong quickly. That analytical approach becomes second nature and that makes the present time, in which perceptions and manipulation of emotions are dominant, difficult for me to accept. Hence this website.
My confrontation with the dominance of framing started in 1997, at the start of the still ongoing campaign to frame aviation as the Big Bad Wolf in the world of climate change. That year, Friends of the Earth campaigned on the theme that a journey by plane produces ten times as much CO2 as the same journey by train. A report was cited as a source, but when reading it I could not find that statement.
After some digging it turned out it was true, but only for trains using electricity sourced from nuclear power plants. And if you disregarded the emissions of the construction and maintenance of the infrastructure. This made me look further and then I tumbled from one surprise to another. Flying is almost miraculously efficient and in almost all cases where we do fly that is the best choice also from a climate point of view. Moreover, the total contribution to human emissions turned out to be quite small.
Still, aviation too must become emissions-free of course. But to arrive at effective policy, it is useful to start by facing the facts. But most people find numbers and percentages boring and the fact that Eurostar now, more than twenty years later, still advertises with the claim that their trains cause 90% less emissions than airplanes, indicates that presenting facts in a society preoccupied with perceptions and emotions is an uphill battle. It’s fun to do, analyzing and dismantling framing, but after ten years I found other things, like my DEGAS-work, more satisfying.
Another ten years later, on January 5, 2019, it started to itch again. That Saturday, the NRC, a well-regarded Dutch newspaper, ran a twelve-page weekend special devoted to flight shame under the title ‘Never Fly Again’. The tone was set and so was the frame. The interesting part was that in several places in that special a knowledgeable and attentive reader would see confirmed that flying is indeed an extremely efficient mode of transport. The casual reader though could easily miss that.
Over the course of the year, I dug up the old material and updated it somewhat. This came in handy when by the end of 2019 suddenly a new type of framing appeared in renowned media such as The New York Times, Bloomberg and The Guardian. Very interesting, because in the early days I often needed less than an hour to find out how and where the framing derailed, but now it could take me a few days sometimes. No wonder that even mainstream media, without time and without subject knowledge, after only a superficial check, if there was any, ran those juicy statements basically on face value. So, I occasionally posted an analysis of these different types of framing.
Those posts are now spread out over LinkedIn and other media, and they fade away rather quickly. Hence this blog, where they remain accessible. Do I expect to achieve something with this? Not really. But when you believe in the great influence of coincidences and misunderstandings, you also believe in chaos theory: a small event can have major consequences. You just don’t know if that will happen, let alone how, what, and when.
In any case, I hope to offer some support to those who still work with love and pride in aviation. As I have done for forty years. You can be extremely proud of what you do and the information on this site may help to discuss the facts of aviation with family or friends who fell for the Big Bad Wolf framing. In my family and with my friends this is rare, but that may not be the case for everybody.
I am only active on LinkedIn and then mainly in Dutch. I have a Twitter account too, @DC9B777, but that is because a few people tweeted under my name. I find that annoying and that’s why I made my own account. Every now and then I post something there, but I don’t follow Twitter, not even my own account. All notifications are disabled too. I don’t have any other accounts. Apparently, there is a Facebook account in my name, with a timeline being updated, but I have nothing to do with that. I don’t know who created that account, nor why.