The biggest problem faced by pilots and obstetricians alike is nature

It’s a bit ironic that pilots, the people who spend the most time traveling above the magnificent landscape that is our planet earth, spend very little time appreciating the scenery.

That’s because they are trained to always be on guard for unexpected emergencies. While the passenger in a jumbo jet traversing the continent can admire the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, the desolation of the Great Salt Lake or the endless expanse of the Great Plains, the pilot is busy checking the weather, the readouts on his console and completing the endless routines and subroutines to make sure that the flight is on the correct settings, at the correct altitude and nowhere near other planes.

Most of us appreciate the pilot’s attention to detail. It gives us an opportunity to enjoy the magnificence of our continent without worrying whether we will arrive safely at our destination. Can you imagine people berating the airlines that the biggest problem with flying is that the pilots don’t fully appreciate and give themselves over to the magnificence of the scenery? That the pilots waste time trying to prevent emergencies that rarely happen? That pilots ruin the flying experience by refusing to fly over the most exciting natural wonders if risk factors like fog or high winds are present?

It’s hard to imagine people complaining that pilots worry too much about safety, but natural childbirth advocates might be different. After all, their chief complaint about obstetricians, whom they hire specifically to pilot them through the far more dangerous territory of childbirth, is that they fail to appreciate the wonder of childbirth and waste time trying to prevent emergencies that rarely happen. Even worse, they can’t be persuaded to ignore risk factors merely to get a glimpse of childbirth in all its natural wonder.

Coincidentally, the biggest problem faced by pilots and obstetricians alike is nature. Wind, rain and fog are entirely natural, yet they can wreak havoc on a plane flying at altitude or a plane trying to land. Pre-eclampsia, hemorrhage and breech babies are entirely natural, yet they can turn childbirth from a blessed event to a life threatening disaster without warning.

Flying is not a disease, right? Why waste time worrying about and preparing for things that rarely go wrong? Sure pilots are specialists in flying and landing planes in the most treacherous circumstance, but do we really need experts in disasters to superintend every flight? Wouldn’t it make sense to hire pilots who are “experts in normal flight” for most trips? And if those “experts in normal flight” get into trouble because of an unexpected storm, they can always call the tower for additional help, right?

And what’s up with all those delays for mechanical problems? Airplanes have zillions of moving parts. Is it really worth interfering with an airplane just to make sure that every single one of them is working properly. How likely is a plane crash anyway? Why not take off and “trust flight”?

Think of all the money we could save if we hired “experts in normal flight.” And it’s not just because we could pay them less. We’d use far less expensive technology. Do we really need all those fancy dials and readouts in every cockpit?. They’re only useful in a few dangerous situations and those situations don’t occur in most flights. The “experts in normal flight” could prepare for emergencies: they could carry those funny plastic oxygen masks with them. And you could still use your seat cushion as a flotation device in the rare event of a crash landing in water.

Instead of wasting all their time checking and rechecking for things that probably won’t go wrong, the “experts in normal flight” could use their time more productively. They could act as guides, pointing out the natural wonders during the flight, and supporting people in getting the most enjoyment out of the experience. They’d let passengers dispense with seat belts and move about the cabin at will, finding whatever position was most comfortable for the passengers, not the one most convenient for the pilot. They could provide home cooked food and lavish attention on the decor of the plane, making it feel more like home. And in the event of a crash, they could clean up all the blood from the floor and wash the towels.

When you think about it, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that airlines insist on pilots fully trained in preventing and managing emergencies merely as an excuse to raise the price of tickets. You can charge a lot more for a flight with a trained pilot. And you can charge a lot more for those fancy dials and meters in the cockpit. You can get away with all those rules that exist merely for the convenience of the pilots. When you convince people that their safety is at stake, they are willing to wear seat belts even though they are probably not necessary. You can convince them to return their seatbacks to the upright position and stow their tray tables on takeoff and landing even though that’s probably not necessary either.

Consumers need to “educate” themselves and take flights back from the airline industry. Let’s demand “experts in normal flight” for the majority of flights. Let’s do away with the equipment that is only useful in emergencies. Let’s insist on pilots who appreciate the wonders of nature and guide our own appreciation instead of obsessing over possible problems. In the meantime, let’s encourage passengers to make their own flight plans, emphasizing their refusal to wear seat belts, their insistence on better food and specifying the desired routes instead of merely acquiescing to the routes suggested by the pilots.

And after the flight (if we survive) we can boast to others about how we took “responsibility” for our own air travel and proclaim that we are empowered passengers.

Amy Tuteur is an obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at The Skeptical OB.

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