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February 26, 2009

Escaping a Plane Crash Safely

Turkish
Scene from the Turkish Airlines crash in Amsterdam.
Photo:  Radio Nederland Wereldomroep

by Barbara S. Peterson

In the wake of yesterday's Turkish Airlines crash in Amsterdam, in which nine passengers died and dozens were injured but 126 escaped with their lives, people are again asking: Do your odds of surviving an airline accident depend on where you're sitting? 

That question has been posed practically since the dawn of commercial aviation. CNN International asked it of me yesterday in preparation for an interview I did on the Turkish accident. (A 737-800 crash landed in a muddy field several miles from Schiphol airport, smashed into three pieces, and, remarkably, didn't burst into flames, allowing most of the people aboard to flee through the cracks.) I gave the producer the same answer I received when I posed that question to an expert on evacuation safety a few years ago.

"Sure, I can tell you where's the safest place to sit," he had said. "But first you have to tell me what kind of accident you're going to be in."

Not exactly reassuring to those who believe in gaming the odds.

For whatever reason, there is a strong belief that the back of the plane is safer than the front. Type that question into Yahoo or Google and you'll see dozens of sites testifying to that "fact."  But that view is based on amateur analyses done of plane crashes that occurred as far back as the early 1970s; aircraft design has changed dramatically since then. Plus, accidents are so rare these days, it's difficult to suss out a pattern for why some people survive and some don't. In yesterday's crash, for example, the fatalities were at both the very front and the far back of the plane.

In the wake of a recent string of survivable accidents--starting with Continental's Denver airport mishap in late 2008 and continuing through the Hudson River splashdown--more attention is being paid to how evacuations are handled. Studies have shown that passenger awareness of exit locations, crew instructions, and pre-flight announcements does, in fact, make a difference. Keep in mind that 95 percent of people involved in air crashes in the U.S. have survived; even in the most serious crashes, in which people were killed or the plane was totaled, more than half of those aboard escaped. About two-thirds of all crashes take place during takeoff or landing, which means the plane is near an airport and is likely moving at a relatively slow speed.

Bill Voss, the head of the Flight Safety Foundation, told me he thinks those odds have been greatly improved with newer aircraft design: "A lot of these people are walking away from these events," he said. In yesterday's crash, he noted, the absence of a fire led some to conclude the plane ran out of fuel, but there's no evidence to support that theory. "They must be doing something better in the fuel tank design."

Further reading:
* The Great Escape (Condé Nast Traveler)
* Top 10 Airline Safety Questions (Airsafe.com)
* On the Fly: The airline industry

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