The recent tragic crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 has reinforced the myth that no one can survive an airplane crash. However, according to the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority, over 70 percent of airline accidents are survivable, and less than 30 percent of those who die in survivable crashes are killed by impact. Passengers can improve their chances of surviving an accident by following several simple tips.
Before Your Flight
Wear clothing you can run in. The ability to move quickly can be essential when evacuating from an airplane. Passengers should wear clothes and shoes that they are effective for running and for going down a slide. High heels are especially problematic in aircraft evacuations, as they can puncture evacuation slides. Removing shoes can cost valuable time and can force a passenger to run through fire or debris without any shoes.
Bring a car seat for infants and toddlers. While most airlines in the United States still allow parents to carry infants on their lap, it is far safer to buy a separate seat for the infant and use a car seat or other appropriate child restraint. Tests have shown that it is physically impossible for parents to hold onto a child in their lap when subjected to the forces typically encountered in a plane crash. Even if lap children survive a crash, they may be separated from parents. In the crash of United Flight 232 in July 1989, a lap child was found alive 15 rows from where her parents were seated, and another died after being separated from his mother during the crash.
Listen to the safety demonstration. It may seem tedious, but the pre-flight safety demonstration is not just a piece of performance art. The advice and safety tips in the safety demonstration, especially specific information such as not smoking in lavatories and the details of the brace position, are all lessons learned from past accidents. Listening to flight attendants or watching the safety video may help passengers in an accident avoid mistakes that have been fatal in the past.
Know which exit is closest to you, and have a backup plan. Evacuating from an aircraft quickly is often the difference between life and death in a survivable plane crash. Visibility inside a passenger cabin is often poor in the aftermath of an accident, as the lights often go out and the cabin may fill with smoke. Passengers who know exactly how many rows are between them and their nearest exit will better be able to find that exit even if they can’t see it.
It is especially important for a passenger to know if their nearest exit is behind them. Studies have shown that people’s natural instinct is to leave a plane through the same door that they used to enter it, which can cause people to run to the front exits during an evacuation when there is actually a closer exit behind them.
In some instances, the exit closest to a passenger may not be usable in an evacuation. Flight attendants and passengers are directed to not open an exit if there is heavy smoke or debris outside the exit, or if opening the exit will cause the aircraft to flood, as was the case with the rear exits on US Airways Flight 1549, the flight that landed in the Hudson River in January 2009. There have also been instances of exits becoming blocked due to a malfunctioning evacuation slide. Therefore, passengers should be prepared to quickly get to a different exit if they can’t use the exit closest to them.
Wear your seatbelt, even when the seatbelt sign is off. Turbulence or other in-flight upsets can occur without warning at any time during flight, including when the seatbelt sign is off. On modern airliners, sudden turbulence is one of the most common causes of injuries, including broken limbs, spinal injuries, and concussions. In one notable instance in 1997, a passenger died from injuries sustained during severe turbulence on a United Airlines flight from Japan to Hawaii.
The importance of seatbelts during in-flight upsets was demonstrated on Qantas Flight 72, which went into a sudden dive during a flight in October 2008. According to the official investigation into the incident, 93 percent of the passengers who were seated with their seatbelts unbuckled were injured in the incident, while only 31 percent of passengers who had their seatbelts on were injured.
Seatbelts are also vitally important during takeoff and landing, which are the phases of flight in which a crash is most likely to occur. According to the NTSB investigation into the crash of Asiana Flight 214, two of the three people killed in the crash were not wearing their seatbelts when the plane crashed, and would likely have survived if they had been wearing seatbelts.
In an Emergency
Know where your life vest is, but don’t inflate it inside the plane. Life vests are the most effective personal flotation devices provided for passengers onboard an airplane. While seat cushions on planes in the US can theoretically be used as flotation devices, the FAA states that “The use of flotation seat cushions as flotation aids should be a last resort.” Seat cushions on non-US carriers may not be designed for use as flotation devices. Inflatable life vests are more effective than seat cushions because they are more buoyant, enable a person to use their arms to swim, enable a person to carry or support another person, and remain effective even if the person’s arms go numb or the person becomes unconscious.
Passengers should wait to inflate a life vest until they are safely outside of the plane. Inflating a life vest before evacuating can have fatal consequences, as it may prevent a passenger from diving under water to reach an exit in a flooded cabin. Many of the fatalities in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961, which crashed in shallow water in November 1996, were attributed to passengers inflating their life vests too early, causing them to become trapped in the cabin when it filled with water.
Keep a cloth and some water handy. Smoke inhalation is one of the main killers in survivable plane crashes. Fires on airliners can also create poisonous gasses in addition to smoke. According to the FAA, “Any cloth held over the nose and mouth will provide protection from smoke particulates; if the cloth is wet, it will also absorb most of the water-soluble gases (i.e., hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen chloride).” While a damp cloth will obviously not provide protection from smoke and poisonous gasses for a sustained period of time, it can provide a vital extra few seconds for a passenger to evacuate.
Stay alert after you evacuate. Passengers who are clear of a crashed airplane aren’t free from danger yet. Passengers should keep running until they are well clear of a crashed plane, and should obey all instructions from flight attendants and emergency responders. Crashed or burning airplanes are frequently surrounded by emergency vehicles, which may still be driving at high speeds as they approach the plane. Explosions from burning planes also pose a threat to recently-evacuated passengers, as demonstrated in August 2007, when a burning China Airlines flight exploded immediately after the last passenger evacuated.
Don’t be afraid – Flying is still very safe!
Don’t let this article make you afraid to fly. Flying is still far safer than other forms of transportation. The drive to and from the airport is still far more dangerous than the flight itself!