Business Traveller Magazine
In the wake of the Air France and Yemenia crashes, we feel it is appropriate to bring up once again the question about how one can survive a plane crash. Having done some preliminary research into the subject, I have uncovered some tips but would still like some expert opinions on the matter.
1. Some sources say that sitting at the back of the plane is better while others say sitting along the aisle and close to an exit is a smarter choice. Does where you sit in a plane really make a difference to your chances of survival in a crash?
2. If your answer to question 1 is yes, which then is the best place to sit?
3. What are the other factors in play that contribute to one’s chance of survival?
4. What can plane passengers do to increase their chances of survival should a crash occur?
Dr. Curtis Responds
As you can imagine, I've fielded quite a few questions about safety over the past month. In my opinion, the circumstances around airliner crashes in the first half of 2009 have resulted in far more media coverage than I normally see. The Yemenia crash had several things going for it. There were many recent media reports about the Air France 447 crash leading up to the end of June because of the missing black boxes and the fact that their locator beacons were scheduled to run out of power at the same time. Add to that the fact that it was an Airbus and that there was a sole survivor meant that there was much more attention paid to this event than to the average crash involving a developing country's airline.
As for your questions, where to sit on the plane to heighten survival chances depends very much on the circumstances of the crash. In my opinion, it does not really matter where you sit in most fatal crashes because the level of fatalities often are either very low, with less than 10% casualties, or very high with over 90% fatalities. In the first case, the aircraft is usually relatively intact and the aircraft is either relatively undamaged or the damage does not keep passengers from exiting the aircraft. In the latter case, the aircraft is usually severely damaged or destroyed, with no survivors or a few survivors.
What makes an analysis of where to sit particularly difficult is that in most cases where there are a substantial number of fatalities and survivors, there is either no major investigation of the crash, or the investigating authorities do not make an effort to map out where people were sitting at the time of the crash. In some of the few cases where I have seen a seat map, the report often mentions that the map represents where passengers were scheduled to sit, not where they were actually sitting at the time of the crash.
To answer your last question, it isn't a question of where you sit, but rather a question of how you behave when you are a passenger. For example, a passenger who is aware of where the nearest exits are, who has reviewed the emergency information for the model aircraft they are on (typically provided on a card in the seat pocket), and who listens to the crew safety briefing has given himself or herself the opportunity to respond quickly and effectively if there is an emergency. Also, it helps to keep alcohol consumption to a minimum, since it may affect your ability to respond to an emergency situation.
Airline emergencies are extremely rare. If one occurs while you are a passenger, your best defense is ability to act quickly and appropriately in order to escape danger and survive.
One More Thought - New Rules Will Make All Seats Safer
Several years ago, the FAA changed the rules for airline seats to make them more sturdy in the event of an accident. Starting in 2009, seats must be able to withstand crash forces that are up to 16 times the force gravity (roughly the forces experienced in a 30 mph automobile collision). This is much higher than the previous standard of nine times the force of gravity. These 16g seats are much more likely to withstand the dynamic loads that the aircraft would experience in a crash with survivable impact forces, allowing passengers a better chance to escape the aircraft after such an accident.
Airplanes that were certified after 1988, for example the 777 and A380, were already required to have these seats. While most new airliners are based on models that were certified after 1988, some new airliners based on older designs, such as the 747-400, still had 9g seats installed. Starting October 27, 2009, all airliners will have to meet this standard.
To comply with the new 16g requirement, some airlines will use airbags for some seat locations. These airbags may be incorporated in the seat belt or it could be attached to another part of the aircraft.
Basic Crash Positions
The FAA provides guidance on the kinds of crash positions that you should take for various situations. The video below has suggested positions for regular coach seats, rear facing seats, and for other situations. If you can't play the video, you can also download the audio podcast or the video podcast below:
Six Basic Crash Positions Podcast: MP3, MP4, WMV
Six Basic Crash Positions
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