The "Trend" In Airline Incidents is Probably Just Publication Bias

I use the term "publication bias" to describe how easy it is to confuse the frequency with which the media reports on a phenomena with the underlying frequency of the phenomena itself.  A great example is Summer of the Shark:

...let's take a step back to 2001 and the "Summer of the Shark." The media hysteria began in early July, when a young boy was bitten by a shark on a beach in Florida. Subsequent attacks received breathless media coverage, up to and including near-nightly footage from TV helicopters of swimming sharks. Until the 9/11 attacks, sharks were the third biggest story of the year as measured by the time dedicated to it on the three major broadcast networks' news shows.

Through this coverage, Americans were left with a strong impression that something unusual was happening -- that an unprecedented number of shark attacks were occurring in that year, and the media dedicated endless coverage to speculation by various "experts" as to the cause of this sharp increase in attacks.

Except there was one problem -- there was no sharp increase in attacks. In the year 2001, five people died in 76 shark attacks. However, just a year earlier, 12 people had died in 85 attacks. The data showed that 2001 actually was a down year for shark attacks.

A lot of folks are now commenting on the apparent "spate" of airline incidents.  This "spate" began with United dragging Dr. David Dao, a man who would not give up his seat for a United employee, off an aircraft.  Seemingly every day sees a new story.  This headline about "yet another airline incident" is typical.

I have no data on the underlying phenomenon here, but I would be willing to bet there is no upward trend in airline incidents of this sort.  My guess is that the combination of increasingly ubiquitous cell phone cameras, publication platforms like Instagram and Facebook, and most importantly a focus by the media on looking for this sort of story after the United incident are causing an uptick in coverage rather than an uptick in actual incidents.


  1. Ike Evans:

    I think there is merit to this idea, but I have another theory that might be just as plausible: people are coming to believe that they have a "right" to a seat on an airplane. This is what is termed as a positive right, which is, in actuality, a faux right. Positive rights (the most common example would be a right to health care) almost universally come at the expense of someone else's negative rights - i.e. the right to be left alone, the right to property, etc.

  2. Barak A. Pearlmutter:

    To be fair, the reason the United incident garnered so much attention is not that they "removed" him from the aeroplane, or the frequency or infrequency of removing people from aeroplanes.

    It's that they abruptly grabbed an elderly, rational, soft-spoken and non-agitated man and beat the living crap out of him: bloodied his face, knocked out some teeth, and knocked him unconscious via blunt trauma to the head. Basically, they nearly killed him. And even then they did not stop to render medical care but dragged his unconscious body up the aisle like a side of beef, leaving a trail of blood. And even then they did not realize what they'd done, and behaved as though this was business as usual, and even trash-talked the guy.

  3. Jim Collins:

    Let's really be fair and admit that United employees never touched the man. The Chicago airport POLICE did.

  4. Barak A. Pearlmutter:

    You're saying United maliciously SWATed the guy? I think that's even worse.

  5. Cindy Kramer:

    My daughter works as a supervisor at a small regional airport. And she says that she calls the police for unruly passengers at least once a week. She never had to have someone dragged off a plane tho. She is generally rather unsympathetic toward the recent events.

    For example the recent event where a passenger tried to seat his babe-in-arms in his own seat after his older son didn't make the flight. Babe -in-arms is a airlines term that indicates a child younger than 2 who is traveling in his parent's lap. That child does not have a ticket and does not show up on the airline computers as occupying a seat. So when the older son did not show that seat is marked as unoccupied and so the airline attempted to seat a standby passenger in that empty seat. Legally the airline proceeded as it should.

    However in the current hysteria it was not a good public relations decision.

    This is not to say that the airlines haven'y made some idiotic moves lately. As you pointed in your own business you deal with customer problems by trying to make the customer happy even if he is wrong. The airlines have forgotten that if they ever knew it.

  6. johnmoore:

    These publication bias happens all the time - it is a form of social hysteria. I suspect incidents might have increased some since 9-11. Airlines are a lot more sensitive, and people are instructed in the rather strong legal powers they have. And, travel outside of first class has gotten more stressful.

    But in general - yeah, publication bias.

  7. Ann_In_Illinois:

    "an elderly, rational, soft-spoken and non-agitated man "

    From some of the video that came out, he was obnoxious and argumentative. And given his past, that wouldn't be surprising. He lost his medical license for pursuing a patient (the man was referred to Dao for a lung problem and Dao decided to do a full exam including genitals; later he hired the man in his office but the man eventually quit because Dao kept making advances on him; finally the man began taking money to have sex with Dao in a hotel, and the two also cooperated on getting illegal prescriptions filled in order to sell them; the man thought Dao was trying to get him addicted to drugs so that Dao wouldn't have to pay $200 cash every time).

    It took about 10 years for Dao to get his license back because he has had repeated anger management issues and also kept rewriting the past, denying that he has ever paid for sex or done anything wrong even while admitting giving the guy money after sex and giving him drugs obtained illegally (and forging prescriptions). They only allowed Dao to go back to seeing patients, under heavy supervision, within the last couple of years, and he's still on probation.

    So, rational doesn't seem like an appropriate term, and both soft-spoken and non-agitated would be unlikely even without the video.

  8. Matthew Slyfield:

    "Babe -in-arms is a airlines term that indicates a child younger than 2 who is traveling in his parent's lap."

    It should be noted that the FAA says that such children should be in their own seat in a government approved child restraint system, not in their parent's lap.

  9. ToddF:

    Not to mention, people trying to game the system looking for a payout. Cindy Kramer brings up the example of a guy who was trying to fly a different person than named on the ticket. I have no doubt this guy was looking to create an incident for that purpose. Showing ID to prove you are who the ticket says you are is a basic flying rule, world wide.

  10. J_W_W:

    They do have a right to that seat. It is a contractual right. Now it may be governed by a bunch of small print, but in the end it's a legal right.

    The rules of the airlines themselves say the United passenger thrown off the plane should not have been allowed to board. Since they let him board l, I'll say he had a right to that seat.

    Comments like yours push us down the road of having no rights for anything because of all the damn small print. We already don't "own" many things we think we own like dvds, music, etc. because the contract we get from the companies selling them just give us a license to use them. These companies retain the right to take them away whenever, kinda like one mans seat on a plane.

  11. J_W_W:

    Yep, yep, Dr. Dao shouldn't have worn that dress.....

  12. ErikTheRed:

    Ehhh... I suspect it's more like police brutality - it's always been A Thing. Lots of crazy stupid stuff happens in the world, but like a tree falling in the forest - if it doesn't trend on social media, did it really happen?

    My personal take is that since 9/11 airline personnel have been accumulating arbitrary policing power and it's been going to their heads. Staffing is largely driven by union seniority, which is like an ongoing Darwinian experiment to try to produce the employees who give the fewest possible fucks while delivering the worst possible customer service. Combined with the never-ending nickel-and-dime bullshit cuts that pervade the US airlines* that generate crankier passengers.... what could possibly go wrong?

    *Aside from a few good ones like Southwest, who ironically built their brand on friendly nickel-and-dime bullshit and have gotten somewhat better while most of the others have ridiculously tanked.

  13. Ike Evans:

    I'm confident the free markets have a solution for this. You surprise me, J_W_W. You usually seem like the guy that recognizes the fallacy of positive rights.

  14. marque2:

    The parents didn't have the proper booster seat for the child. Also note this is the same government that says you can have the child in the lap in the first place. And the same government that discovered deaths go up if you force a parent to buy an extra seat for the two year old. Studies on safety are mostly from Steward unions who for some unfathomable reason hate babies.

  15. J_W_W:

    Positive rights are a fallacy. But contract rights also have to mean something. I fear that we are getting to the point where companies will start putting "we reserve the right to not give you what you paid for" and it will be upheld.

    Contract rights are paramount for libertarianism. Two parties must be able to come to reasonable agreements in mutually beneficial exchange. I see companies trying to tilt the scales and make transactions one way things by retaining huge power over their cutsomers.

    I fear that "the customer is always right" is going away in our society, in favor off allowing companies taking the position of "just consider yourself lucky if you get what we promised you".

    Put simpler, I have no positive right to board a plane, but once I've paid the airline hundreds of dollars, checked in to the flight, gotten on the plane, and sat in my seat the assumption should be that they then fly me to my destination.

  16. Ike Evans:

    The recent United debacle is proof as to how awesometacular the free markets are. Even as federal regulators require the airlines to reimburse up to $1,300 (?) for a bumped flight, the airlines are paying up to $10,000 just to avoid the scene we saw a couple weeks ago.

    In the contract you signed with the airline, they reserve the ability to bump you from your flight, and for good reason actually. The rare occasion that flights get bumped allows for your ticket to be less expensive. There are also a series of security reasons that would force the airlines to revoke your right of passage.

    Recent videos I've seen has shown how customers now feel entitled to be incredibly obnoxious on the airplane, and I suspect this is because of their sense of entitlement to positive rights.

    In the end, per the contract, you don't have a right to a seat on the airplane.

  17. J_W_W:

    "In the end, per the contract, you don't have a right to a seat on the airplane."

    But that speaks to my fear. How long will it be until airlines just bump customers off of their flights and don't rebook them on another flight. But that logic they could just choose not to honor your ticket, keep your money, and "too bad so sad, the contract says we can do it".

    The basic assumption that consumers buying things from companies deserve to actually get the thing of value they're purchasing is in danger in situations like this.

    As you've stated the correct way to get a customer to give up the seat the airline sold to them is to offer reimbursement for the inconvenience. Free markets QED, problem solved. I would posit that an airline with a philosophy of "the customer is always right" would always be able to come to a free agreement with enough customers to get the seats they need on an overbooked flight.

  18. Jim Collins:

    United didn't do anything except follow procedure. The man was asked to leave the plane. He refused. Once the police were called, United's responsibility ended.
    I'm not commenting on United bumping him off of the flight. I don't know enough about it one way or another.

  19. cc:

    Media are subject to the fear of missing a story, so whenever some outlet breaks a story that looks good, others jump on it. Stories that are true but not exciting are missed. Thus there is more uniformity than expected in which stories get covered. Stories that take effort to fact-check don't get done, especially as the number of staff keeps going down at news outlets. That is why news outlets love hurricanes and forest fires--great visuals, little fact-checking required. This is also why they love to just quote some prominent person, even if that person is a movie star--cheap, easy, no fact-checking, and plausible deniability if wrong.

  20. Ike Evans:

    I think you and I are essentially on the same page, with maybe a very minor differences on how an airline would go about taking care of their customers.

  21. Bistro:

    If the customer bought the ticket for that seat he owns it and that's that. If the airline wants to buy it back, let them pay whatever the 'owner' demands.

  22. Bistro:

    Gee, that sounds like the claim, "we only machine gunned the survivors because that's procedures and orders are orders."

  23. Bistro:

    To some extent, when one buys a ticket on a specific airline for a specific date and time of departure, one should enjoy the contractual right to fly. Having the airline decide at the last minute that it failed to sell enough seats and cancel that flight is bogus. It creates more than indifference to any complaints/plights the airline might have about passenger behaviour because the airline is usually the one that generated all the illwill in the first place by lying and deceiving.

  24. Ike Evans: should enjoy the contractual right to fly.

    That's between you and the airline. If you don't like the contract, drive.

  25. J_W_W:

    Yep, I agree.

  26. rob S:

    Toyota stuck accelerator debacle?