Plane travel is incredibly safe — your odds of dying on a commercial flight are about one in 11 million — but accidents still happen and travellers sometimes make it to a different kind of final destination. Many past fatalities may, however, have been avoidable. Here’s the safety info you should be up on in case you go down.
Photo by Giuseppe Milo.
Before we get too far into this, you should know that no two aeroplane accidents are the same and incidents can vary wildly. There is no consistent way to avoid a plane crash and no methods that guarantee survival. For example, a plane that nose-dives into the ground before bursting into a ball of flame isn’t a survivable incident no matter what you do.
That said, most accidents are not like that. Even if your flight has an incident, more than 70 per cent of airline accidents are survivable, according to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
Sit in the Back of the Plane
Location, location, location. Where you choose to sit may greatly affect your odds of survival in a plane crash, depending on the incident. A few years ago, TIME magazine scoured Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aircraft Accident Database statistics and seating charts to look for trends over the course of 35 years. Here’s what they found:
- Seats in the rear third of the aircraft had a 32 per cent fatality rate.
- Seats in the middle third had a 39 per cent fatality rate.
- Seats in the front third had a 38 per cent fatality rate.
This suggests the safest part of the plane to sit is the rear third of the aircraft. Basic economy, baby. Moreover, the middle seats in that back third of the aircraft had the lowest fatality rate of all seats at 28 per cent. Hope you like sharing armrests.
The seats with the highest fatality rate were aisle seats in the middle third of the cabin at 44 per cent. Popular Mechanics performed a similar study in 2007 with similar findings. Their analysis suggests that passengers sitting behind the wing of the aircraft had a 40 per cent greater chance of surviving than the passengers in the front of the plane.
The rear third of a typical Boeing 737. Original image via United.com.
The numbers regarding whether you should sit in the aisle, middle, or window seat aren’t exactly consistent, however. A separate study from University of Greenwich found that aisle seats actually provided a marginally higher chance of survival, so it’s honestly a bit of a crap shoot in that regard.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, it all depends on the incident itself. There are plenty of examples out there, like United Airlines Flight 232, where the front of the plane was safer, they’re just fewer in number. Wherever you choose to sit, just make it a seat on a big plane. Larger commercial planes have a larger number of redundant systems, have a lower accident rate and can absorb more force during impact.
Remember the “Five Row Rule”
A majority of plane crash fatalities occur because passengers are unable to exit the plane in time after an emergency landing. To give yourself a better shot of getting out in time, always consider what Professor Ed Galea of the University of Greenwich calls the “Five Row Rule”.
After studying 105 plane crashes and interviewing over 2000 surviving passengers and crew members, Galea found that survivors move an average of five rows before escaping safely.
The “Five Row Rule” applied to a typical Boeing 737. As you can see, most seats fall under this rule. Original image via United.com.
Always pick a seat within five rows of an emergency exit. If you can, grab a seat right next to an exit, or one just a single row away. Galea says sitting more than five rows away from an exit means “the chances of perishing far outweigh those of surviving”.
It’s no guarantee, of course, but the logic is sound. The further you have to travel inside a burning plane, the lower your chances of actually making it out. Regardless of where you sit, Cheryl Schwartz, a retired flight attendant for United Airlines, highly recommends you count how many rows you are away from the nearest emergency exit, no matter how familiar you think you are with the aircraft.
Double check if you have to. That way, if the cabin fills with smoke and your visibility is impaired, you can still find your way out.
71% of people who die in survivable crashes, do so after the aircraft comes to a complete stop
As I mentioned before, the impact itself isn’t what causes most fatalities in plane accidents. According to CASA, 71 per cent of fatalities occur after the aircraft has come to a stop. The European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) had similar findings. They estimated that 90 per cent of aircraft accidents are survivable, and that at least 40 per cent of the fatalities in past accidents were actually survivable. A large portion of those instances were fire-related.
via The Association of Air Medical Services.
To limit your time on board a burning aircraft and to avoid severe burns, Cynthia Corbett, a human factors specialist at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, suggests you should dress like you need to run away from a burning plane:
“If you have to do that, how well are your flip-flops going to perform? How well are your high-heeled shoes going to perform? When you’re sliding down that fabric slide out of the plane, are pantyhose going to withstand? Shorts and skirts and high-heeled shoes just are not our preferred attire for flying, because it’s hard to run in those kinds of shoes and actually escape when you’re not clothed properly. We like to see tie-on shoes that you’re not going to run out of and long pants. Jeans are good. I know in the summer that’s really tough, but short-shorts are just real dangerous in that event…”
It’s a good idea to have a long-sleeved t-shirt or jacket as well. Make sure your clothing is made out of 100 per cent cotton or wool so they won’t melt. Do not wear synthetic fabrics.
Sorry, I know they’re comfy. And it doesn’t hurt to pack a handkerchief in your jacket pocket just in case you need something to cover your face. You can wet it with the water they hand out and create a temporary breathing mask.
Listen to Flight Attendants and Read the Safety Card
I know, it’s a drag, and you’ve heard it a billion times, but it’s a good idea to listen to that speech the flight attendants give before takeoff. I get that you know how to put on a seat belt — I mean, you know how to read this right now so you must have the intelligence required to understand basic seat belt mechanisms — but flight attendants are still giving you valuable information.
They show you where exits are, demonstrate how to use flotation vests and oxygen masks (which you definitely need to know how to do quickly), and the safety card will have evacuation routes on them that you should absolutely be aware of.
But you know all that stuff, right? You’ve flown so many times you could repeat it all by memory! I doubt it. According to a report from the FAA, frequent fliers proved to be the least informed and most complacent of all passengers.
Listen to the speech or video, look at the safety card, and develop a plan for yourself and loved ones so you can spring into action the moment something happens. You won’t have time to make a plan later.
Follow the “Plus Three, Minus Eight Rule”
It’s true that most plane accidents occur during takeoff or landing, and there’s a time window for when these incidents most commonly take place: sometime during the three minutes after takeoff; and sometime during the eight minutes before landing. In The Survivor’s Club, author Ben Sherwood explains that 80 per cent of all plane crashes actually happen during this time.
To increase your odds of survival during one of those incidents, you should pay attention be vigilant during those times. That means no sleeping, no listening to music, no taking off your shoes, no being sloppy drunk or drugged out and no unbuckling your seat belt during that time window.
Stay aware and be ready to execute your plan of action.
Know How to Brace for Impact
So it’s happening; you’re going down and the flight crew has warned you to brace for impact. What do you do? If you have time, Corbett suggests you remove sharp objects from your pockets (like pens, pencils, and keys), and stuff your carry-on belongings under the seat in front of you.
This keeps the area clear for you and other passengers to walk after the impact, but it also pads the legs and blocks them from going under the seat in front of you. You’ll reduce the likelihood of breaking your legs and hindering your escape.
via U.S. Department of Transportation and FAA.
Once you’ve prepared, it’s time to assume the position. First, put on your seat belt. Then, how you brace depends on where you are seated:
- If you have a seat in front of you: Cross your hands on the seat in front of and rest your forehead on top your hands. This will help reduce whiplash and head injuries.
- If you don’t have a seat in front of you: Bend over as far as possible, grab your legs around your knees, and keep your head down until you feel the plane stop. Place your hands on the back of your head, dominant hand first.
If you’re unsure about your seat, review your safety card before takeoff. It will have the instructions you need to know for your specific aircraft. And make sure your seat belt is on tight. The more slack you have in your seat belt the more G-force your body will experience during impact.
Be Ready to Get Out of the Plane Super Fast
OK, you’ve survived the impact of the crash landing and people are yelling and scrambling about. Don’t sit around in a daze. Schwartz says there’s a phenomenon where people sit around surprised they survived the crash, then wait for rescue:
“Most crashes are survivable. Yet, with survivable crashes, crash scene investigators find passengers without a scratch on them still belted in their seats, dead.”
Get out! Fire and smoke are almost certainly coming. As Sherwood explains in The Survivor’s Club, you have about 90 seconds to escape the cabin before the fire burns through the plane’s aluminium fuselage and gets to you. Ideally, you’ve got your capable shoes on, clothes that won’t melt into your skin, and you wet a handkerchief before the impact so you have something to breathe through. Now you need to follow your designated evacuation route.
If you sat near an exit as planned, that’s good. If you didn’t, hopefully you’ve been hitting the gym. The FAA notes that fit young people tend to make it out alive more often than older, more heavy-set folks (evacuation times can differ up to 31 per cent).
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Why? You need to move quickly, slide through narrow aisles, clear wreckage and luggage strewn about, and possibly have to physically move blockage. Climbing seats to reach an exit isn’t ideal, as it can create more congestion at exits, but if it’s your only way out, take it. Once you’re out, get away from the wreckage as fast as possible. You don’t want to survive impact then manage to escape, only to be killed by shrapnel with the plane decides to explode.
Now, take a deep breath and thank your lucky stars you knew what to do.