To start, let's address the risk involved in modern commercial flying, which is pretty much statistically non-existent in the big picture. The New York Times reported in February that "in the last five years, the death risk for passengers in the United States has been one in 45 million flights," which means you could theoretically fly once per day for about 123,000 years before your number came up.
But what if you're toward the front of that queue? According to "Survivors Club" author Ben Sherwood, almost 96 percent of passengers involved in plane crashes make it out alive, and another 30 percent of plane crash fatalities could be prevented if passengers know what to do. So of that last four to five people per 100 passengers, another one or two people could join the survivor list with some advance planning.
What can you do to make yourself one of the vast majority who actually survive a plane crash? We have read far and wide on the topic, and have settled on the following action items as the simplest and most important things to do to increase your odds of survival dramatically.
Look, Listen, Have a Plan
If you are reading this, you have traveled enough to know that the vast majority of us are guilty of ignoring the standard safety announcement at the beginning of every flight. Unfortunately, most safety experts advise specifically against this.
Instead, they instruct travelers to pull out the safety card from the seatback, where you will find exit and escape instructions specific to the plane on which you are flying. These instructions can vary dramatically depending on the seating setup, size and model of the plane, age of the plane, and the like.
You want to read the card for very specific details. Aircraft safety expert Jerome Greer Chandler, senior editor at AirlineRatings.com, recommends that you review exactly how to remove the exit row door if needed. "There are a few different handle mechanisms currently in use on commercial aircraft, and you will want to know how they operate on your plane," he advises. Some have a complex mechanism that is tricky and non-intuitive to perform even under normal conditions, while others have a more modern, automated handle. In some cases, you might be required to pull the door into the plane, turn it sideways and then actually throw it out the opening, a complex act requiring knowledge, dexterity, mental clarity and strength, Chandler notes.
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Then listen to the safety announcement, and actually do the things you're told to do in the event of an emergency. I think they talk about the correct crash position, oxygen mask, flotation device, maybe some other stuff -- I guess I'll have to listen next time. All kidding aside, the chaos of a true emergency situation is not to be underestimated, so if you have actually paid attention to this at the outset of the flight, and aren't relying on having half-heard it hundreds of times, you might actually be able to perform all those tasks.
Next, sketch out a mental plan for your own escape and that of your travel companions based on your location on the plane. It should include as many escape routes as possible -- to the front of the plane, the back, the nearest exit, the farthest exit, the other side of the plane, etc.
When you get to your seat, crane your neck around a bit to see these actual points of escape, so that if there is an actual emergency, you won't need instruction or even a line of sight to get to them. This can be very important, as the likelihood of the cabin being filled with smoke, flames, broken seats, luggage, you name it, is pretty high, and you may have to get to where you are going from memory, not by actually looking around and seeing the way out.
To this end, Chandler recommends counting the number of rows your seat is from the primary exit, if possible by actually counting the seats by hand. "When I board the plane, I count by touch the number of rows between me and the exits on either side of the plane," he said. "Just a light touch on the back of each seat as I walk down the [aisle] does it, and then if I have to count the rows without seeing them (due to smoke), I know the way out."
Finally, figure out a few stunningly simple things that will help you react quickly -- where will the oxygen mask come down? If you are not seated together, where exactly are your companions seated, in number of seats or rows away from your seat? How do you unbuckle your seatbelt quickly?
By this time, if you need to do these things, you will have visualized almost everything you will need to do if an emergency occurs.
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Focus on the Beginning and End of the Flight
For the most part, crashes occur in the first and last few minutes of any given flight -- that is, at takeoff and landing. This has come to be called the "Plus Three -- Minus Eight Rule" -- that is, the first three and last eight minutes of a flight. This is when you want to be most vigilant, alert and ready for anything. Chandler recommends putting on your shoes and clearing your lap during this time so you will be nimble and unencumbered if something happens.
Realize That Something Bad Is Actually Happening
Do not succumb to what experts variously call "normalcy bias" or "negative panic," a phenomenon in which people involved in true crisis situations underreact dramatically, with passive and muted rather than swift and decisive actions. A tragic example of this occurred during a 1963 crash in which, of 20 people who died of burns and/or smoke inhalation, "six were still strapped in their seats and nine more were sitting near a workable emergency window exit that no one even tried to open."
Flight attendants are specifically trained in how to deal with negative panic, but they're not immune to it; nor are pilots, or your travel companions, or your spouse who might have equal responsibility for your children. So you must be vigilant to recognize this possibility in others and be ready to take charge of yourself in the absence of authority figures.
On smaller planes, there are fewer flight attendants, and they may be in another part of the plane from which you might not be able to see or hear them for instructions. Or flight attendants and pilots may be incapacitated during the crash, rendering them unable to give instructions to passengers.
"Who do you listen to in this case? If the voice in your head is saying to get out, and you have read the safety card and know what to do, listen to your instincts," Chandler said. "Don't wait for someone to come say get up and get out. Get out yourself, immediately."
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Ditch Your Stuff
Chandler reminds folks of the image of survivors of the Asiana flight coming off the plane with all of their belongings, and recommends powerfully against doing the same. "You are going to need both hands to be able to do some of the things you may need to do, not to mention that you have very little time to escape, and you can't afford to lose the time it takes to gather your luggage and laptop," he said.
That said, Chandler did relate a story of a survivor of the Southern Airways Flight 242 crash in 1977 who pulled a thick leather coat around his head, which served as a heat and flame shield and saved his life. If you have something that you really think could protect you from heat and fire, by all means use it.
Chandler recommends that you stay as low to the aircraft floor as possible when evacuating: "You can follow the floor lights to the exits, and the good air is down low as well because the heat and smoke hover up in the top of the fuselage."
Get Out and Away
Experts estimate that you have about two minutes to get out of the plane to maximize your chances of survival. Get yourself headed for an exit immediately, and when you escape, head upwind and keep going. Getting yourself at least 500 feet upwind of the aircraft will help you get clear of smoke, fire, potential explosions and the release of toxic chemicals.
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Read the Safety Card, Then Enjoy the Ride
Finally, remember that odds are it will be about another 123,000 years before you actually have to do any of the above. Until that time comes, relax and enjoy the flight. After listening to the safety announcement and reading the safety card, that is.