With the recent crash landing of Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, ABC News ran a story on finding the safest seat in an airplane. Stories like this seem to appear every time there is a big crash.
There were 305 people aboard the aircraft, including passengers and crew. So far, only two people, both teenage girls from China, were killed. 182 people were injured, 49 severely. 22 were listed in critical condition. Frankly, for a crash landing in which there was a huge fire, it seems a miracle that more people were not killed.
A few statistics can help put the incident into perspective. Flying is still one of the safest modes of travel available. Your odds of dying on an airplane are about the same as dying on an escalator. Really. Only 1 out of every 1.2 million flights ends up in an accident. Statistics from 1993 to 2000 show that the survival rate for plane crashes is 95%. The most dangerous parts of any flight are the first three minutes after takeoff and the last 8 minutes of the flight, as 80% of all crashes occur during these periods of time.
Since plane crashes are survivable, the main thing to remember is not to panic, and one of the best ways to avoid panic is to have a plan for dealing with emergencies. On an airplane, this involves choosing a safe seat and, once you're on the plane, knowing exactly where all the exits are. Paying attention to the safety announcements at the beginning of the flight, even though you've heard them a thousand times before, helps, as well. And checking out the safety information card in the seat pocket in front of you is a good idea, too, since it gives specific information about the type of plane you are riding in. Remember that you, the passenger, are ultimately responsible for saving your own life.
Picking the "safest seat" is still a gamble of sorts, because there are all sorts of variables - planes crash in different ways for different reasons. Instead of thinking that there must be one safest seat, it's better to think in terms of "rules of thumb."
1) Generally speaking, seats in the back are safer than ones in the front. People who sit in the back of the plane have a 40% higher rate of survival. Seats in the first seven rows are more dangerous, especially if the plane crashes nose-first. UPDATE: Because of the way the Asiana jet crashed, most of those who sustained injuries were sitting in the back of the plane. That just goes to show that "rules of thumb" are not sure bets.
2) Aisle seats are safer than window or middle seats.
3) Seats near the exit are the best - try to get a seat that is no farther than five rows from an exit. It may be that not all exits are safe. If there is smoke or you can see flames, you will have to exit from the other side of the plane. Try to listen for crew instructions. The Boeing 777, the type of jet that crashed, is designed so that all the passengers can get off the plane within 90 seconds, even if half the exits are inoperable, and I suspect that is true of the design of all modern planes.
You may want to think ahead to the best possible thing to be wearing in the event of a crash. Long pants, long sleeves and sturdy shoes are the best bet. Sandals are cute, but they will make it very difficult for you to move through debris after getting out of the plane. You will be asked to take off high heels before getting on the exit slide, which means you will be barefooted or stocking-footed when you get on the ground. Keep your shoes on the first three minutes of flight and the last 8 minutes before landing. Natural fabrics such as cotton or wool are more flame-resistant than synthetics. Loose or fussy clothing may hamper your ability to exit the plane.
Keep your seat belt fastened at all times during the flight, even if you loosen the belt a bit. If you do loosen it and are told to prepare for a crash, tighten the belt, because for every centimeter you loosen the belt, the G-force your body experiences in the crash will triple!
Keep in mind, when you ask for that alcoholic drink during the flight that you will need to keep your wits about you if there is an emergency. Know your own limits.
In the event of an emergency, you will almost always have a few minutes to prepare. (The Asiana Airlines flight was an exception in that the crash even seemed to surprise the crew, an the passengers were given no warning.) If you know you will be landing on land in a cold place, and you already have your jacket on your lap, this is the time to put it on. If you are headed for a water landing, take off your shoes and excess clothing. If you have pens or pencils in a pocket, remove them immediately. Mentally go over how to unbuckle your seat belt. ( Lift the flap!) Many people are so dazed that they forget how to do this after a crash.
Bracing for impact can save your life and reduce your likelihood of being injured by flying debris in the crash. In order to brace, return your seat to its upright position. If there is a seat or a bulkhead (wall) directly in front of you, bend down and place one hand palm down on the seat in front, then cross your other hand over the hand on the seat and rest your forehead against your hands. Don't lace your fingers. The sides of your arms should protect your head. Remain in brace position until the aircraft has come to a complete stop.
If there is nothing in front of you that you can reach, bend down as far as you can and put your head between your knees. Cross your wrists in front of your calves and grab your ankles. Keep your feet flat on the floor and farther back than your knees. If you happen to have a pillow or blanket with you, use that to protect your head.
In the United States, you have to be at least 15 before you are allowed in an exit row, and you must be flying alone, especially not with anyone else who may require assistance. You should have normal vision and hearing and be able to lift at least 33 pounds. There is no upper age limit, as long as you can meet the other requirements. Passengers who require a seat extender may not sit in an exit row. (This is mainly to exclude pregnant women and those who may be too obese to react quickly in the event of an emergency.) Remember that if you are sitting in an exit row, you may be asked to stay on the plane and assist others before exiting yourself. You have to be able to speak the language of the air carrier so you can follow crew instructions.
If the airbags pop out, grab one for yourself first and put it on, then assist others. You can't very well assist if you are reeling from oxygen deprivation. If there is smoke, find a way to block your nose, stay as low as you can (but don't crawl on the floor), and exit as soon as you can. Black smoke can fill the cabin (and any room in a building) within about two minutes. DO NOT try to take anything with you, or you will become a danger to yourself and others who are trying to exit the plane. (My advice: wear a small bag with a cross-body strap during the flight, if things are that important to you, such as ID, credit card, and emergency medications.)
Once you are out of the plane, you will need to get at least 500 feet away from the wreckage. Stay with the group of passengers until you can be rescued. Watch to see how you can be of assistance to other passengers. :-/