The airline crash survival rate is better than you might think. Technology has improved, but human behavior must too, says an industry authority.
By now, we’ve all seen coverage of the horrific runway collision at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on January 2. Five crew members on one aircraft were killed, but despite the conflagration captured in the news photo above, not one of the 379 occupants onboard Japan Airlines Flight 516 died.
Some people call fatality-free airline disasters “miracles,” but they aren’t. They’re the long, hard-won victories of scientific research and development by government agencies, aircraft manufacturers, airlines, unions, and many others. Tremendous technological advancements have made newer airplanes—like JAL’s A350—so much better designed to 1) avoid crashes, 2) make crashes more survivable, and 3) lengthen evacuation times.
When researching my book Attention All Passengers a decade ago, former National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman told me, “They’re not miracles anymore… It’s a myth.”
Yet the “all or nothing” mentality persists, with many people believing plane crashes will probably kill you. I and many others receive snarky online comments when discussing them: “Sure, go survive flying into a mountain!”
It’s true that not every crash is survivable, but the number of passengers surviving catastrophic airline accidents in recent decades keeps rising, and this week’s successful Japan Air Lines evacuation is more proof that even the most terrifying commercial plane crash can be survivable.
Negative thinking isn’t just outdated. It’s counter-productive. Simply tuning in and listening during your flight can enable you to survive even the most harrowing aviation disasters.
What the FAA can do
In 2021, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published a report on U.S. airline accidents over an 18-year period (1983–2000) and found that 95.7% of occupants had survived.
Since then, we’ve seen more cases of fatality-free “hull loss” accidents that undoubtedly would have been deadly years ago. We can credit advances in retarding fire and smoke that allow safe egress, as per the Federal Aviation Administration’s “90-second rule,” which in 1967 mandated that all airline occupants must be able to evacuate within a minute and a half.
FAA inspectors once required manufacturers and airlines to demonstrate those 90-second evacuations, but since the 1990s, testing has switched to computer modeling.
Unfortunately, airline cabins in this century have been transformed by innumerable factors, making egress tougher: higher passenger loads, smaller seats, larger Americans, more carry-ons, electronic distractions, more cabin animals, and so on.
The FAA needs to revamp its testing procedures for modern scenarios and mandate minimum seat sizes, as American Economic Liberties Project told the agency in 2022.
What you can do
After spending decades around the aviation industry, I get it: Talking about airline safety unnerves many people. But it’s not morbid or obsessive to develop sensible flying habits that become routine. I’ve undergone emergency egress training for both the airlines and the USAF Auxiliary. No one is ever accused of being obsessive when they buckle up before driving a car, and safe flying habits can become just as routine.
A comprehensive analysis by Boeing of all commercial jet aircraft accidents worldwide since the Jet Age (1959–2022) conclusively illustrates the most dangerous phases of flight. Takeoff and the initial climb produce 21% of all fatal accidents, while final approach and landing produce 46%. In other words, two-thirds of deadly events occur within the first and last minutes of flight, so those phases are critical.
Seat belt signs are illuminated during these times (and during severe turbulence and inflight emergencies). If boarding hasn’t even finished but you’re already in your socks and jammies, wearing earbuds and knocking back an Ambien and a mimosa—you may want to rethink your routine. Consider this advice from someone who has studied airline safety for years:
• Stay aware. I know, I know—you’re a platinum member and you’ve logged more miles than the crew, so you don’t need safety briefings or seatback cards. Want to test that? Close your eyes. Where’s the nearest exit? In front or behind? How many rows are there until you reach it? Can you find the exit if the cabin fills with smoke and the lights go out, as the Japan Air Lines passengers had to do? Can your partner do it? Can your kids?
• Look and listen. Wait until you reach cruising altitude to put on the eyeshades and noise-canceling headset. Although neither the FAA nor any domestic airline requires it, Flight Safety Foundation and other experts strongly recommend keeping window shades open during takeoff and landing to give escaping passengers a clear view of the situation outside the aircraft.
• Stay alert. Of course you’ll want to sleep on a nonstop from Honolulu to Sydney. But wait until the landing gear has retracted before snoozing or taking sleeping pills and/or alcohol.
• Remain buckled up. It’s a federal requirement when the light’s on, not a choice. That rule excepts kids under 2, but do the right thing and secure them in an FAA-approved restraint anyway. Every aviation expert in the world agrees on this.
• Dress sensibly. Consider the climate en route, not just the destination. No matter where you’re flying, don’t depart Boston in January in a tank-top and shorts in case there’s an issue during the takeoff process. Also consider wearing cottons and other natural fibers, because synthetics don’t react well to intense heat. (A flight attendant friend of mine who survived the fatal 1989 United Airlines Flight 232 accident in Sioux City suffered second- and third-degree burns when her panty hose melted onto her skin.)
• Footwear is critical. Don’t be barefoot during takeoff or landing, and don’t wear loose flip-flops or high heels, which can either get lost or—worse yet—tangled in an evacuation slide. The wrong shoes can mean broken ankles or more serious injuries.
• Carry nothing! The worst thing you can do when evacuating a burning airplane is stop to retrieve belongings. But…it only takes a few seconds! Right? Unfortunately, the 90-second rule doesn’t calculate carry-ons. So if just four passengers stop at the overhead bins, they could kill eight people. Over a laptop! Furthermore, bags can puncture the slides and endanger others, as I detailed in 2016 and in 2019.
• Follow instructions! These days, flight attendants are tasked by airlines with myriad chores, like enforcing policies, collecting fees, cleaning cabins, and being fight referees. But they’re actually federally mandated for just one purpose: ensuring your safety. The most critical way to safely evacuate is to listen to instructions from the crew. They can save your life. Let them.
William J. McGee is the Senior Fellow for Aviation & Travel at American Economic Liberties Project. An FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher, he spent seven years in airline flight operations management and was Editor-in-Chief of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. He is the author of Attention All Passengers and teaches at Vaughn College of Aeronautics. There is more at www.economicliberties.us/william-mcgee/.