The Brazilian airline TAM recently changed the flight number of one of its planes based on a prediction by a self-proclaimed psychic that the flight was doomed.
According to a story on Fox News, “Jucelino Nobrega da Luz, who says he predicted the deaths of Princess Diana and Brazilian racing legend Ayrton Senna, told authorities flight JJ3720, set to depart Wednesday from Sao Paulo to Brasilia, would develop engine trouble and crash on Sao Paulo’s main Paulista drag. Leaving nothing to chance, TAM changed the flight code to JJ4732 after receiving what it termed ‘indispensable information.’”
The renumbered flight took off and landed without a problem, though of course there’s no reason to think that anything different would have happened if they’d kept the original flight number. It’s not clear why Nobrega da Luz decided that the plane was in danger — nor why simply changing the flight number would prevent the disaster, according to him or the airlines. After all, it’s the same airplane, with the same pilot, crew and passengers. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, though a flight by another name, apparently, is a whole different flight.
This is not the first time that a psychic has raised an alarm about a plane. In March 2004 a psychic claimed that a bomb was aboard an American Airlines flight at Southwest Florida International Airport. The bomb report resulted in a preboarding search by the TSA and Port Authority police. Despite a thorough examination with both equipment and bomb-sniffing dogs, nothing suspicious was found.
It’s easy to chide TAM airlines for what at first glance appears to be superstitious skittishness, but the situation is more complex than that. In public relations appearance is often more important than fact or truth.
Airlines don’t want to appear superstitious, but may have many customers who are. People often greatly exaggerate real risks to themselves, for example driving instead of flying because of safety fears (despite the fact that auto travel is far more dangerous than air travel). They underestimate their risk of contracting or dying from ebola while treating the deadly flu virus as an insignificant threat. If airline passengers don’t feel safe flying TAM for whatever reason — whether valid or imagined — then they will fly another airline or travel another way.
Companies know this, and they’re often forced to officially respond in some way to address their client’s concerns. An airline can ignore and dismiss the claim, saying that they cannot allow anyone’s bad feeling or intuition to disrupt their operations. On the other hand, if the person making the claim is influential enough it may be easier and cheaper to simply change a flight number to appease the concerns of a vocal or superstitious minority.
Bad luck superstitions about travel have been common for millennia. For centuries fishermen and travelers about to embark on long and potentially uncertain ocean voyages, for example, performed rituals or entered the boat in a certain way — often the starboard side — to ward off bad luck and evil portents.
Iona Opie and Moira Tatem’s “A Dictionary of Superstitions” notes that the actions TAM airlines took in addressing the psychic’s concerns would have actually been thought to bring about disaster centuries ago because of the name change. Airplanes aren’t individually named but they do have flight numbers, which were changed in this case.
As Opie and Tatem note, “Sailors believe that it is unlucky to alter the name of a ship. Many tales are told of vessels which were lost after such a change.” In fact Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1881 classic “Treasure Island” refers to just such a superstition. After a ship’s crew of men were “hanged like a dog,” their deadly fate “comed of changing names to their ships …. Now, what a ship was christenend, so let her stay, I say.”
Superstitions are common around the world and aviation is no exception: That’s why many planes don’t have a row labeled with the infamously unlucky number 13. Of course there is a 13th row — it’s just not called that to avoid upsetting any superstitious passengers.