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Seeing news reports today of the Yemenia plane crash made me contrast it with the second episode of season 2 of Mad Men which I watched yesterday and the reaction of the characters to the American airline crash in Jamaica Bay in 1962. According to a newspaper article about the crash, this crash which killed 95 people was the biggest death toll from a commercial airliner to date. In the episode, Don Draper arrives in the office to find all the staff gathered around the radio listening to reports of the accident. In constrast, today the article is the lead on the Sydney Morning Herald website, but unlikely to be a major talking point for people in the office. Some of them might fail to know, while in  Mad Men that would have seemed inconceivable.

The newness, the novelty of flight is captured in the aghast reactions; but then, perhaps they weren’t so much different from us. Within five minutes of hearing the news, the ad executives were making up jokes about the incident – they just didn’t have the internet to spread them. Then again, is that an overlay of our own perspective. a current day distorition of the past reaction.

The shock may also be explained by the connection to the incident – it was American Airlines after all, in the US that the crash took place, in fact near New York where the characters are located. Australia has not had a major air disaster on Australian soil, nor has Qantas the Australian carrier been involved in a major crash. This innocence with respect to major crashes at home is perhaps reflected in the attention lavished on air “incidents” like the two Qantas planes’ dramatic loss of altitude which resulted in a number of injuries.

I can imagine that, in Canberra, if a plane crashed on take off here, there would be staff glued to the internet or radio or television. Unlike in Mad Men where it was the novelty and magic of air travel which was dented by the accident and added to its fascination, for most Canberrans the ubiquity and routine nature of it would be a cause for compelling attention. The closeness of the connection to air travel, the fact that most people in Canberra know someone who travels regularly would mean that a major air accident hear would have us waiting to hear about those we know, with that ghoulish part fear, part horror, part relish that disaster brings.

So perhaps, after all, while we can dismiss with indifference the accident that is distant, we might still react like they did in 1962 if it was close enough.

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