Of course airline travel is so frightening because it seems so out of our control, but here’s the astounding and encouraging part - 95.7 percent of people involved in a plane crash survive. That’s incredible, and yet the data confirms that even in the most serious types of crashes, more than 76% of passengers survived.
What is your Q?
Industry insiders talk about your ‘Q,’ which is the death risk of any passenger per randomly chosen flight. From all data collected over the last 10 years, the Q was 1 in 60 million, significantly higher than previous 1 in 11 million fatality numbers, so airline travel is getting even safer.
Why does it seem like there are more tragic plane crashes?
The reason is twofold – our perceptions, and the media coverage. Studying the New York Time front page over the decades, plane accidents have been reported 1,500% more than auto hazards, 6,000% more than cancer, and at a 600% clip more than HIV and AIDS stories. Basically, the media loves making front-page headline news out of our plane crashes.
Our perceptions also play a key part, understandably so because the tragedies are on a mass scale. Instead of 2 or 3 people dying in a car crash, you have 200 or 300 in a plane crash when they happen. We tend to tune out the day-to-day bad news in small chunks but stop and fixate on the big scary stuff.
But whether you live or die in a plane crash is still completely out of your control, right?
Not at all. The European Transport Safety Council found that 40% of the fatalities in plane crashes were survivable, which means that out of the 1,500 accident fatalities they studied, 600 people should have lived.
When do crashes occur?
More than 80% of all crashes occur during the first three minutes of takeoff or the last eight minutes before landing. That +3/-8 is so crucial for maintain safety. Very few accidents occur at high altitude cruising speeds when the flight is basically automated. Wet and icy runways are the leading cause of accidents.
Is there a safer part of the plane to sit?
This question is controversial within the field of airline safety. In 2007, Popular Mechanics magazine issued a report after studying every plane crash as far back as 1972. They concluded that sitting in the back of the plane was the safest place to be in the event of a crash. Their data showed that you were 40% more likely to survive a plane crash sitting in the back than the front of the plane. They reported that rear cabin passengers had a 69% survival rate in bad crashes, while those who sat near the wing and in the rest of coach had a 69% survival rate. It was most dangerous to sit in first and business class, where there was only a 49% survival rate.
The only comprehensive study of its time, the Popular Mechanics “the back of the plane is safer” theory became the popular wisdom. However, recent research disputes any proof that the rear is safer.
The reason is that every plane accident is different so you can’t formulate one universal safety number for all of them. Sometimes the plane crashes tail first; sometimes front first, on one wing or the other. Also, by delving into not only plane positioning by front-middle-back but seat-by-seat fatalities, there was no correlation with sitting in then back and survival.
They did find that bigger planes were safer in the event of a crash because their size gave them more energy absorption, or “crush ability.” So if sitting in the rear doesn’t make you safer, what does? Your survival comes down to one thing: the exit row.
The Five Row rule.
Professor Ed Galea at the University of Greenwich in London has done the most detailed modern research into plane crashes and fatalities and came up with one theory: those who sat within 5 rows of an exit row survived at a much higher rate than everyone else. His Five Row Rule stresses accessibility to the exit in case of a crash as the #1 determining factor of who survives. For that same reason, you’re significantly more likely to survive if you sit in an aisle seat instead of by the window. The bigger and wider main exit doors in the front and the back of the plane offer the best chance of evacuation in case of an accident.
What exactly kills people in crashes?
Contrary to common perception that the impact of a plane hitting the ground is what’s most fatal, the toxic gases and smoke from aircraft fires in the event of a crash kill most people. Upon impact, fires or engines explosions often occur, quickly rising up to 2,000 degrees, a flash fire that consumes everything.
How long do you have to evacuate after a crash?
Studies conclude that in the event of a crash, you have a 90-second window to evacuate safely. Longer than that and the fire from outside the plane burns through the plane’s aluminum skin. In the airline industry this 90-second window for evacuation is called “golden time.”
Will flight attendants help you?
It’s best not to count on flight attendants herding you safely to evacuation, as 45% of the time they are incapacitated and cant lead you out. Interestingly enough, flight attendants are trained to look for ABP’s as they call them able bodies passengers, to help in the case of a disaster. As you board and they smile and greet you they’re actually scanning for passengers who are healthy, physically fit, sober, alert, and maybe had some emergency training – like doctors, military, fire fighters, or police officers. Flight attendants will count on those ABP’s to assist in event of an emergency.
Like we learned, even 30%-40% of fatalities in crashes are preventable. Basically, those who evacuate, survive, so it all comes down to getting out efficiently and within that 90-second window.
There are several factors that speak to who will evacuate. 31% of the differences among people’s evacuation times depend on their personal characteristics like age, gender, and girth. The stark reality is that older, fatter, and less physically fit passengers are more likely to die, and females more so than males. But there’s a huge factor in survival that goes beyond physicality. Almost 50% of the difference in evacuation times between passengers is explained by inexperience and lack of familiarity with fleeing the plane. Basically, who’s alert and paying attention and know what to do.
What goes wrong with evacuations?
It sounds simple - everyone stand up, walk to the exit, and file out in an orderly fashion. But in the event of a plane crash it’s never that easy. There’s smoke and fire, people screaming and crying, the force of impact, injuries, and mass confusion.
In these times, your mind basically goes into shock and even the easiest mundane tasks become alien. When thrust into such a dire and remarkable situation, you’re mind searches to match the current situation with memories of past situations in order to process it. When your brain doesn’t find a match (or if you haven’t trained for it), your mind gets stuck in a loop of searching for the correct response, a condition the military calls ‘dislocation of expectation.’
People freeze up under those conditions - they pause to look for social direction and leadership instead of acting, called ‘toxic immobility.’ For instance, Seatbelt Panic is a common problem that delays evacuation. In their panicked, dislocated mindset, passengers tend to pull the release, not push release.
Simply passing through the aisle and knowing and following basic emergency procedures wastes valuable time, the chance of fatalities mounting with each passing second. The Federal Aviation Administration states that 61% of fliers don’t pay attention to emergency procedures. They attribute a sense of fatalism among fliers to this inattention – they think ‘if the plane goes down, it’s out of my control.’ So they go through the motions of putting their seatbelt on loosely, falling asleep, not noticing where the exits are, and drinking before or on the flight. Therefore, they make crucial mistakes when faced with an emergency.
As an example, most passengers believe you can survive for up to an hour without an oxygen mask if the plane decompresses, while in reality you only have about 15 seconds before rendered unconscious. They believe they have plenty of time to evacuate a burning plane, while they only have 90 seconds.
What steps can you take to be prepared?
Try to book your seat near an exit row and in an aisle seat.
Once you board the plane, look for the two closest exits and count how many rows away they are, and memorize those numbers. If the plane goes black or is clouded in smoke, you’ll be able to feel your way along and know how far to go to reach the exit.
Pay attention to emergency instructions and even repeat some of them out loud. It’s found that if you’re visibly attentive, the passengers around you will be so, too.
Stay awake, especially during takeoffs and landings. Don’t drink alcohol, make sure your bags are stowed beneath the seat in front of you, keep your shoes on, take off your headphones and be ready for action.
Wear long pants, long sleeves and closed-toed shoes that are laced up. In the event of a crash there will be smoke and fire and also could be glass, metal, and other harmful fragments on the ground you have to navigate. It’s pretty scary that they also recommend you don’t wear stockings or synthetic fabrics that could melt right to your legs under high temperatures.
If you’re traveling with your spouse or children, talk about exactly what to do and formulate a plan. Let your kids know that you’ll be putting your oxygen mask on first before theirs.
Very importantly, put on your seatbelt correctly. It should be snug as possible and over your upper pelvis, not your stomach. In the event of a crash, every centimeter of slack in your seat belt triples the G-Force you’ll experience. The pelvis is equipped to withstand and distribute large amounts of force while a belt over your stomach could cause internal injuries.
In the event of a crash what should you do?
God forbid, if it comes to the moment when you realize the plane will crash, how can you prepare? At that point, everything they’ve taught you and everything around you will either help or hinder you survive. The emergency crash position can really save your life. Place your head on or near the seat in front of you so it will have less space to whip forward and collide upon impact. The seat in front of you is a big part of your safety system, designed to catch and slow you in a crash. Each seat has a special hinge that regulates deceleration, acting as a big crash pad, basically. (So THAT’s why we have to put our seats in the upright position when taking off and landing!) For that same reason, the bulkhead row in the front of the plane can be really dangerous.
Plant your feet on the floor as far back as possible – they tend to fly forward upon impact which causes broken bones in the feet and legs, impeding your ability to walk and endangering you and everyone sitting next to you.
When your oxygen mask drops, put it on immediately, then put it on your children, and then look around if other passengers need assistance.
Get a shirt or any extra piece of clothing ready – you can put it over your mouth as a smoke guard during your evacuation.
Take note of the exit rows again, go over your plan, and put on your life vest.
Stay low as you’re evacuating.
DO NOT try to bring anything with you or take the time to grab your carry on bags. You’d be amazed how often people try to do this and how much time it wastes.
Don’t inflate your life vest until you are outside of the cabin.
Don’t wear sharp shoes like high heels on the inflatable ramp and one you slide down, get far away from the aircraft while encouraging the other passengers to do the same, while staying in a tight group.
Call 911 and look for emergency vehicles and follow all instructions.
A plane crash may be one of the most frightening things that can happen to us, but by awareness and a little planning, your chances of surviving are much higher than you’d expect.