Following Tuesday’s tragic incident involving an engine explosion on a Southwest Airlines flight that killed one woman and injured at least seven others, many find themselves questioning the oft-touted statistics about airline safety. It is true that, statistically speaking, air travel is significantly safer than driving, but accepting minimal risk is still a game of chance. Even with the odds stacked in your favor, it never hurts to take personal precautions that could improve your chances of survival should the worst occur.
First thing’s first though — in order to address how best to mitigate the risks associated with flying, we need to determine what they are and how likely you are to face them. For the sake of argument, we’ll break different dangerous situations down as percentages of a whole that operates under the assumption that you are among the unlucky few that will find themselves in a life or death situation aboard a commercial flight. However, it’s important to note that, statistically speaking, the chances of that happening to you are around one in 29 million.
“If you take one flight a day, you would on average need to fly every day for 55,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash,” M.I.T’s Sloan School Statistician Arnold Barnett said on the safety of flying. However, the underlying and unfortunate truth regarding these statistics is that, unlikely as it may be, some people will still be involved in tragic incidents, and there’s little one can do to predict who those people will be.
A breakdown of airline incidents that cause fatalities shows that life-threatening crashes are overwhelmingly the result of pilot error: 32% of incidents were caused by a simple mistake, 16% caused by errors related weather and another 5% caused by errors related to equipment. That means, if someone is going to die on your flight, there’s a 53% chance it will be because the pilot crashed the plane.
Mechanical failure, which Tuesday’s incident can be attributed to, accounts for 20% of commercial aviation fatalities, with weather-caused crashes at 12% and sabotage accounting for 8%. The remaining seven percent of incidents tend to fall under catch-all categories.
In most cases, these deaths were directly related to the aircraft impacting the ground or caused by smoke inhalation, with incidents like Tuesday’s tragedy so statistically unlikely that they don’t account for a meaningful percentage of the data.
Being in a potentially fatal crash, however, is no guarantee of death. In fact, in most crashes, the passengers on board have a whopping 90% or better chance at surviving. Those are pretty good odds for a metal tube careening through the sky at hundreds of miles per hour, but there are some things you can do to help ensure you’re not among the unfortunate few that dies in a survivable crash.
The first thing you can do is secure a seat near the rear of the aircraft, preferably in a middle row. This idea has been opposed by airline manufacturers like Boeing, who claim all seats aboard their aircraft are equally safe, but a macro-study conducted by Popular Mechanics in 2007 analyzed crash data from incidents dating back to 1971, and their conclusions are hard to refute: sitting at the back of the aircraft has historically led to a forty percent increase in a passenger’s chances at survival during a crash.
Sitting in a middle seat on the back of the aircraft will also reduce the likelihood that you could be injured or killed in a fuselage breach like the one that occurred on Tuesday. Other things you can do to increase your chances at surviving an incident aboard a commercial flight include keeping your seatbelt fastened and bracing yourself for impact prior to a crash.
According to experts, the best way to brace yourself is to put your head down and place both hands over it to protect it from flying debris.
Unlikely as dying aboard a commercial airline may be, Tuesday’s tragedy serves as a harsh reminder that these incidents do occur, and for the most part, once you’re strapped into your seat, things are out of your hands. However, just like any risks we accept while going about our day-to-day activities, there are things we can do to mitigate them. Sometimes, it just takes a little forethought, and maybe, a seat preference.
Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press