Skydiver jumping out of a plane, with earth way down below
(credit: 272447 /Pixabay)

Similar, but very different

We sometimes treat similar risks very differently, and that affects how we make decisions

Koen Smets
6 min readMay 8, 2020


Fear of flying is not likely to be something bothering many people any time soon. The latest IATA figures show that, after a drop in global demand for air travel in February of 10% year-on-year, the decline was way more precipitous in March: it was down by 56%. The figures for April are not yet available, but FlightRadar24 (which tracks all flights globally) reports it shrank by nearly 74%. This includes cargo movements, so whatever remains of passenger flights will be negligible.

Fear of flying is often cited as an irrational fear, on the basis that the objective risk of perishing while in an aircraft disaster is comparable to the risk of dying while travelling to or from the airport, especially if that is done by car (a 1000 mile flight poses about the same risk as driving 250 miles). You could indeed argue that categorically avoiding one risk, but happily accepting a similar or larger risk is irrational. But is that really so?

Risk: more than just figures

The risks may be equivalent, but there is more to it. Should something go wrong, the prospect of spending your last minute or so in an airliner going down, well… I can kind of see why some people might have a strong preference to avoid such a fate. And before — if you are lucky enough not to suffer from aerophobia — you laugh at people refusing to travel by air, consider this. Would you happily jump out of a plane in free fall for thirty seconds, before eventually engaging your parachute? If you drive a pretty average 8,000 miles per year, you will have exactly the same risk of dying. And yet, for most people, it doesn’t feel remotely the same.

If you don’t go skydiving (or travel by aeroplane) then what you are doing is to avoid any possibility of being killed during that activity altogether. Like avoiding hangovers by not drinking alcohol, it is hard to see why this would be irrational. Before we dismiss fear of flying (or of skydiving) as irrational, we should realize that there is more to risk avoidance than just numbers.

If we must see irrationality in refusing to travel by plane, then we have to look elsewhere, for example…



Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius