What are the odds of my plane crashing?

by Ned Levi on May 4, 2009

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.

Print Friendly
Be Sociable, Share!

  • Frank

    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 have yet to find ANYONE in the emergency exit row to tell me the following:

    when wouldnt you open the exit?
    1. water level
    2. smoke
    3. fire
    4. obstruction

    How do you inflate the slide?

    Without looking at the door, how does the door handle rotate?

    ALL THE ANSWERS CAN BE FOUND ON THE EMERGENCY CARD

    Great resource for Airline crashes: http://www.airdisaster.com/

  • http://www.ffocus.org Bruce InCharlotte

    Great information and I’m looking forward to the next installment. I had no idea there were so few crashes and that the survivability ratio was that high!

  • Ned Levi

    Hi Frank,

    Thanks for your comment. Actually, I haven’t ever seen an aircraft emergency card with answers to all your questions on the card, so I’ll take a stab at briefly answering your questions.

    The exit row emergency instruction card does explain how to open the door, but in my opinion, often is written in Martian, and the diagram/pictures, are often indecipherable. In other words, the card was written for those individuals who already know how to open the door. The FAA and the airlines need to have these cards generally rewritten for ordinary travelers.

    In the event of an emergency landing the people in the exit should wait until the aircraft has landed on the ground or water and has come to a complete stop. In the case of a water landing, of course, there may continue to be some continued movement, but I think it will be clear when the exit row passengers should proceed to the door.

    This is covered in Part 2 of my article, but before the door is opened, the exit row passenger at the door should look out the window of the door before opening it. I’ve never seen this written in the door instructions. In the case of a water landing the person should be aware the bottom of the door could be underwater. The further back in the plane the exit door is located, the more likely it may be partly below the water. More often than not, the rear doors are not opened in the event of a water landing precisely because they are partly below the water line. Opening them could hasten the plane sinking. Generally the rear exit is attended to by flight attendants.

    In addition to checking for water in the event of a water landing, the passenger at the emergency door should check for fire, smoke and potential obstructions. In the case of a fire at or near the door, the door should not be immediately opened by the passenger. The door on the other side of the plane should be checked, and hopefully, if the fire is localized to one side of the plane that door can be opened. If the fire is larger, and on both sides of the plane, forward or rear exits may be safer and hopefully the flight crew will be giving instructions and direction to the exit row passengers.

    In the case of smoke, generally, the door should be open as smoke will most likely be surrounding the plan, with no exit free of it, and the more exits which are opened and available, the faster the plane’s evacuation will be completed.

    In the case of obstruction, the scope of the obstruction will determine if the door should be opened. It is impossible to offer advice of any kind about that here.

    When an emergency door is opened the slide will automatically deploy. When the door is first opened, the emergency exit passengers should block the doorway until the slide has been fully deployed, then help passengers down the slide. If it’s windy, the first passengers down the slide should help keep the slide in place and assist elderly or infirmed passengers at the bottom of the slide get clear of it as quickly as possible prior to the next passenger going down the slide. Only one person should go down the slide at a time, or injuries will likely occur when passengers use the slide.

    Without looking at the door it is impossible to tell how the door handle moves. Each plane is different, which is why anyone in an exit row passenger must read how to open the door, and if unsure about the procedure, review it in detail with the flight attendance prior to takeoff.

    Thanks for your questions. Stay tuned for next week’s column which will detail suggestions for passengers once on board the plane, and in the event of a crash, what to do once the plane is down and stopped.

    Regards,

    Ned

  • Frank

    On May 5th, 2009 at 7:08 am Ned Levi said Hi Frank,

    Thanks for your comment. Actually, I haven’t ever seen an aircraft emergency card with answers to all your questions on the card,
    =========

    Ned, actually, ALL MY QUESTIONS “ARE” ANSWERED by looking at the emergency card.

    ——————————————————————————————————–

    Without looking at the door it is impossible to tell how the door handle moves.
    ==========

    My point, Ned, is you should KNOW the handle rotation prior to leaving the gate. You may have to operate it in SMOKE or DARKNESS, not clearly seeing the instructions.
    ——————————————————————————————————-

    When an emergency door is opened the slide will automatically deploy.
    ==========

    NOT SO. Several aircraft require YOU to “manually” pull the inflation handle when you open the door. Know where that inflation handle is? You should.

    Ned, I think you confused my comments. They were NOT questions FOR YOU, but questions I ask my emergency exit row passengers when they fly. Even the frequent flyer DOES NOT answer most of them correctly. Their frequent flying gives them a false sense of knowledge in an emergency evacuation.

  • Ned Levi

    Frank, I haven’t been on a main line commercial plane in the last 10 years which required manual slide deployment. I have been on some small leased touring planes, such as the one I flew from Fairbanks, Alaska to Gates Of The Arctic National Park near Wiseman, AK which are manual.

    I completely agree that exit row passengers need to know what to do before the plane leaves the gate.

    It’s been my experience on US Air, American, Continental, United, and Delta, that a flight attendant always comes over to the exit row passengers, before the plane leaves the gate to ensure that is the case.

    I also agree that even most frequent fliers don’t know what to do, and I haven’t seen an airline yet which actually routinely tells you want to do under those circumstances. I think that’s a real problem.

    Best,

    Ned

  • Frank

    On May 5th, 2009 at 11:26 am Ned Levi said Frank, I haven’t been on a main line commercial plane in the last 10 years which required manual slide deployment.
    ==========================================================

    MD-80′s and DC-9′s. Both manual inflation.

    I also agree that even most frequent fliers don’t know what to do, and I haven’t seen an airline yet which actually routinely tells you want to do under those circumstances.
    ===========================================================

    smile……….you havent flown with me.

    GREAT REPLY, NED. Informative and thorough article. Great job!

  • Ned Levi

    Thanks Frank.

    You learn something every day. I have never flown on an MD-80, and my only flights on DC-9′s were on Eastern, so you know how long ago that was. They went out of business in 1991.

  • Frank

    On May 5th, 2009 at 8:58 pm Ned Levi said Thanks Frank.

    You learn something every day. I have never flown on an MD-80, and my only flights on DC-9’s were on Eastern
    =========================================================

    These aircraft are slowly disappearing into the desert. MD-80′s are now flown by American and Allegiant. DC-9′s are flown by Northwest (Delta). I “think” that’s it now. Anyone?

    I LIKE how you interact with your own article. Ned. It increases the discussion and valuable information.

  • Ned Levi

    I enjoy the interaction, but generally only participate in the discussion when a clarification or correction is needed, or when someone asks a question I might be able to shed light on. I feel that generally the comment area belongs to the readers, not me.

    Frank, may I suggest you consider joining us on Tripso’s forums at Talking Travelers. We have great discussions over there on travel and a wide range of non-travel topics.

  • Pingback: TravelOFFEN.com Blog » Modern Flying Machines are Safe

  • Pingback: What are the odds of my plane crashing? < It’s all about the trends

  • Dale

    I would like to know what direction the doors on an airliner open. Do they open inward or outward? Thanks

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    Dale, I’ve had to open the door on a commercial jet just once. I was helping a flight attendant after a plane aborted a takeoff and we had to evacuate the plane to play it safe. The assist on the door didn’t work and it took three of us to fully open the door so the inflatable chute could be activated and used. The door swung in a bit and then opened out. I may be wrong, but I believe that’s generally how all commercial jet doors open at this point. There may be exceptions.

    If you’re in an exit row, make sure you are familiar with the procedure to open the door, and if you’re not quite sure, ask a flight attendant. They will be more than willing to explain it to you.

  • Frank

    Dale January 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm
    I would like to know what direction the doors on an airliner open. Do they open inward or outward? Thanks
    ==================================================

    OUTWARDS, but the door opens differently, depending on the aircraft. Take for example, the DC-10. The Door opens INTO the ceiling of the aircraft. Take the 737′s, the door opens TOWARDS the cockpit, but the DOOR HANDLE opens towards the back of the plane.
    (opens right to left) McDonald Douglas do open towards the cockpit, and the DOOR HANDLE operates as the door does, towards the cockpit.

    LOOK AT THE CARD, PEOPLE. Even a 9 year old will tell you after looking at it.

  • PIE GOOGLE COM

    ROOOOAAAARRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!~!!!!!!!!!!

  • ISUCKPOUNOHA

    SUCK IT . PIE GOOGLE.COM

  • Olga

    Thank you. I’m flying tomorrow and this really did make me feel a lot better. C:

  • Brett

    Flying for my honeymoon soon so my nerves are heightened, this helped a lot when you do the math!

  • Rachel

    this made me more nervous with all the talk of clothing and seating precautions.

  • Patrick

    Thank You so much I needed to read this I was so nervous….

Previous post:

Next post: