How Likely Are You To Survive A Plane Crash?

News that all 103 passengers survived a plane crash in Mexico’s Durango state on Tuesday may seem incredible, especially given the dramatic pictures of the smoking wreckage. Almost all those on board were injured in the accident, but most reportedly walked away from the wreckage with only light injuries. How unusual is this? Well, surprisingly, it may not be as rare as you’d think.

What are our odds of surviving an accident?

Put simply; there is no clear-cut answer – just as we can’t definitively say how survivable car accidents are, because it depends entirely on the circumstances. But when the US National Transportation Safety Board did a review of national aviation accidents from 1983-1999, it found that more than 95% of aircraft occupants survived accidents, including 55% in the most serious incidents. Our chances largely depend on factors like the presence of fire, the altitude a mishap takes place at, and its location. The European Transport Safety Council estimated that 90% of aircraft accidents were technically survivable in a study in 1996. In the two decades since these two studies were done, airline safety has improved even further, with fatal accidents steadily declining. Flying is statistically less risky than other modes of transport, but that doesn’t stop some of us worrying. It could be because we mostly see dramatic and fatal incidents on the news, or dramatised by Hollywood.

What determines if a crash is survivable?

Tom Farrier, former director of safety at the Air Transport Association, explained on the website Quora that three general conditions help determine whether an accident is survivable:

  • Whether the forces encountered by human occupants are within the limits of human tolerance
  • Whether the structures surrounding them (i.e. the plane) remain substantially intact
  • Whether the post-crash environment presents an immediate threat to occupants or rescuers

In short: how bad any impact was for the body, how much damage was done to the aircraft, and whether the wreckage and environment around it are safe. In the case of Mexico, the plane crashed shortly after take-off and most of the injured passengers were able to get away before the aircraft caught fire. Asked if it was worse to crash on land or sea, aviation consultant Adrian Gjertsen says it has more to do with the proximity of rescue services than the surface. “For instance, during the incident on the Hudson River, there were rescue services readily available. But if you’re in the middle of an ocean there’s going to be more of a problem because of simply getting back to dry land,” he told the BBC. “If there were an accident in the Sahara or the middle of the Atlantic – I wouldn’t say there’s an enormous difference between them really, insomuch as there’s no one there to help.”

How can we boost our odds?

The internet is full of advice on this topic: wearing your seatbelt, not wearing flammable clothes, and counting the seat rows in advance in case the lights fail. People also debate wherein an aircraft it’s safest to sit, and some research suggests crash records show the rear could be marginally safer. Mr Gjertsen says it is not that simple, and that it all depends on the aircraft and the individual incident. “One of the issues that have caused problems is passengers’ desire to collect their baggage and depart with it,” he says. “That will prejudice safety – not only of themselves but everyone else as well. It’s inevitably human nature that you want to, but if something does go wrong, you need to get away from the situation.” In general, experts say being aware of your surroundings and being quick to exit is key, as is listening to the rest of the safety advice offered. “All I can stress is how safe aviation in general is,” Mr Gjertsen says. “And the idea is to prevent something that you need to survive from happening in the first place.”

Credit: The BBC, 1 August 2018.