This year, while many summer vacationers will stay close to home, some will be flying to distant locations. In the last few months, I’ve met more people with a fear of flying than I can count. They all point to US Airways Flight 1549, “Sully’s Miracle,” which ditched in the Hudson River in New York City, earlier this year, shortly after takeoff, due to a double bird strike. That surprised me since everyone survived.
I’ve pointed that out, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
Everyone remembers the bad crashes like Valujet flight 592 in the Florida Everglades, TWA flight 800 in the Atlantic Ocean, Swissair flight 111 in Nova Scotia, and Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, because there were no survivors.
Fortunately, those tragedies are exceptions. More often than not, most passengers survive crashes, to walk away.
According to National Transportation Safety Board statistics of airplane accidents which occurred between 1983 and 2000, 17 years, 51,207 out of the 53,487 passengers in those accident survived. That’s a 95.7 percent survival rate. Even when we look only at the most serious 26 accidents, 1,525 of 2,739 passengers survived. That’s a 56 percent survival rate. If we remove the Lockerbie, Scotland crash, which was not an accident, but intentionally caused by a bomb, the survival rate from serious accidents increases to 61 percent.
I suspect you may be as surprised as I was looking at those survival statistics. Think about this, too: In 17 years fewer than 54,000 passengers have been in a plane accident, yet last year alone, US carriers hauled more than 809 million passengers. The odds of you being in an airplane accident are minuscule.
Over the years, planes have become safer. The FAA here, and government aviation authorities elsewhere in the world, have required more and more safety features installed in planes. Many, for example, are to prevent fire in the passenger cabin in case of an accident or an inflight problem in the cargo hold. Thermal insulation, as well as fire suppression systems are now standard in today’s planes.
If you’re still worried, I’ve done some research and determined steps you can take to increase your chance of being in the survivor group, and I have some of my own practical advice, which comes from my experiences flying in commercial airlines for more years than I care to count, including one aborted takeoff, after which the plane was evacuated.
I know most people want to sit as far to the front of the plane as possible, but according to a Popular Mechanics study that examined every commercial jet crash in the United States, from 1971 through 2006, that had both fatalities and survivors, you’re safer in the back of the plane. In fact, those sitting in the back, as close to the tail as possible, have about a 40 percent better chance of surviving a plane crash, than those in front in first class.
Sitting within five rows of any exit improves your likelihood of survival too. A British safety expert reviewed seating plans in more than 100 crashes and interviewed nearly 2,000 passengers. He concluded that five rows is the cut-off for likely getting out of a burning plane safely. Beyond that range, your chances of survival drop. Also, passengers in aisle seats have a higher survival rate, than those in window seats.
Before booking any flights, I check Seat Guru to ascertain seat quality and proximity to exit rows of the available seats on my flights.
Wear the right clothing to fly. Wear a good pair of shoes or leather sneakers, never sandals or flip-flops. For women, wearing high heels may make an airborne fashion statement, but you don’t want to be wearing them in case of an emergency exit from a plane. Sandals or “heels” make it hard to move quickly within wreckage.
I wear long pants and long sleeved shirts, made with natural fibers (synthetics or high synthetic content blends can melt on your skin in a fire, causing serious and even fatal wounds) to protect my skin from the possibility of intense heat and fire, but more importantly, to be honest, to help me slide down the wing of an aircraft or emergency slide. Experience has taught me going down that slide can hurt.
Loose or elaborate clothing can get snagged on obstacles in a plane’s tight quarters, especially if there’s some damage. If you know you’re going to be flying over cold areas, dress appropriately, and consider keeping a jacket on your lap, especially during takeoff and landing, when most mishaps occur. In cold weather, crash survival may depend on your staying warm.
Now that I’ve discussed some measures you can take before boarding, in Part II, next week, I’ll discuss what to do, once you’re on a plane, and if you’re involved in a crash, what to do once the plane is on the ground and stopped.