How to survive a plane crash

Sarah Coles
Plane flying into the stormy sunset clouds
Plane flying into the stormy sunset clouds

So let's get things straight. The good news is that plane crashes are extremely unlikely (did you know that you're around 2,000 times more likely to die on your way to the airport than while you're in the air?). And even if the worst does happen, and your plane is one of the tiny unlucky minority, the National Transportation Safety Board in the US has concluded that there's a 95 per cent chance you'll walk away from the crash (and even a 76 per cent chance of walking away from a serious crash).

So what can you do to maximise your chances of surviving in the incredibly unlikely event that the worst happens?

We asked the experts for their top tips.

1. Make a plan
According to the FAA, your survival chances are increased by up to 40 per cent if you are prepared, making it the most important factor of all. This means paying attention throughout the safety briefing, thinking through what would happen in the event of a crash, and taking steps such as counting the number of rows between you and the nearest exit, so you can still get out even if it's dark. In most instances you will have several minutes between being told you will crash and actually crashing: rather than panicking, use this time to go over your plan again.

2. Sit as close to an exit as possible
This has one of the biggest effects on survival rates. A study by the University of Greenwich found that you are far more likely to survive a crash if you are sitting within five rows of an exit - once you are six or more rows away, your chances of survival drop to 50:50. If you can get yourself a seat on the exit aisle, then that's even better. Also try to get an aisle seat - where your chances of survival are 64 per cent - compared to 58 per cent in a window seat.

3. Steer clear of the airlines most likely to crash
The European Union has strict safety controls on the aircraft and airlines allowed to operate in the area. If you are travelling outside Europe, it pays to be aware of the airlines considered to pose too much of a risk, by checking the banned list.

Aside from this, it's hard to tell which airlines are most likely to crash, because in most cases having no crashes for one 10-year period does not make it any more or less likely that an airline will have a crash in the following 10 years. However, statistics from the Flight Safety Foundation have found that the airlines which suffered the fewest crashes per km between 1985 and 2014 were:

1. Southwest Airlines
2. Cathay Pacific
3. Lufthansa
4. British Airways
5. Air Canada
6. Qantas
7. United/Continental
8. KLM
9. Virgin Atlantic
10. Singapore Airlines

4. Sit at the back - or on the wings
Statistics from Popular Mechanics magazine suggest that you are 40 per cent more likely to survive a crash if you are sitting in the rear of the plane than if you are in the front three rows. If you cannot get a seat in the tail, then the magazine found that sitting between the wings is also marginally safer than sitting in the front. These findings have been questioned by experts, who highlight that every crash is different, and impacts on different parts of the plane. However, it may be worth having the odds on your side anyway.

5. Be alert during take-off and landing
The most dangerous points come at the beginning and end of each trip. Some 43 per cent of fatalities occur during takeoff and 41 per cent during landing. Don't settle in with a book or put headphones on at the start of the flight: stay alert to what is going on around you during the first three minutes of the flight. Likewise, in the final eight minutes of the trip, make sure you are awake, that you haven't drunk any alcohol, and that you are ready to carry out safety procedures if needs be.

6. Practice the brace position
The brace position is designed so that your head and torso are as far forward as they can get, so there's less flailing in the event of a crash. There are lots of conspiracy theories which claim that it will do nothing to protect you in the event of a crash. However, the experts disagree. The Australian Civil Aviation Authority uses the example of a plane which crashed with 16 people on board. Most were asleep, but one woke and adopted the brace position: he was the only survivor.

7. Put your luggage under the seat in front
You should keep your feet as far back as possible as they will fly forward, and the further back they are to start with, the less likely they are to break. With your luggage in front of you they are less likely to go up under the seat in front, because your luggage will act as a cushion.

8. Keep your seatbelt tight
Keep your seat-belt fastened at all times, including when you are sleeping. This will help protect you if the plane crashes without enough warning for you to do your seat-belt up. Wear it as tight as you can, because for every inch of slack you leave, you will put your body under more pressure. It's also worth practicing taking your seatbelt off in a hurry, as in a panic people revert to learned behaviour, so many have been shown to try to take their belt off as if it was a car seat-belt.

9. Be quick
The second most common reason that people die in a plane crash is a post-crash fire, so studies have shown that if you can get off the plane in the first 90 seconds after a crash you vastly increase your chances of survival. One common reaction to a crash is to sit in a stunned trance, and wait for someone to come to get you or to tell you what to do, while your brain struggles to cope. The best answer is always to get off as soon as humanly possible, so if in doubt, move. If you are concerned you would go into a trance, you could go on a British Airways course, which puts you through a simulated crash so you know what could happen.

You should also try to cover your mouth and nose to avoid smoke inhalation - with a wet cloth or piece of clothing if possible. However, don't try to get low to the ground as you are more likely to be trampled.

10. Dress right
Wear clothes that cover your arms and legs (jeans are good), and flat shoes that cover all of your feet. You should also tuck tops in, and keep your arms free. This will help protect you against flying objects such as glass. It will also make it easier to manoeuvre yourself to an exit.

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