What are your chances of surviving a plane crash? Contrary to popular belief, they're actually very good indeed: especially if you're in the cheap seats.
In the United States, between 1983 and 2000, there were 568 plane crashes. In 90% of them there were survivors, and out of the 53,487 people onboard, 51,207 survived. (Of course, the 9/11 tragedies changed all of our considerations about crashes. nonetheless, "deliberate" crashes are, of course, an infinitesimal possibility.)
According to Popular Mechanics magazine, the safest place to be in the event of a crash is at the back, well behind the wings, where there is a 69% survival rate. Sitting over (or just in front of) the wings reduces your chances of getting out alive to 56%. The worst place to be is right up in front in first class, where the survival rate falls to 49%. (A bit of dark irony there, as the VIPs and most affluent people are actually in the least safe, highest risk seats.)
According to the world's leading fire safety engineer, professor Ed Galea of the University of Greenwich, the biggest danger is actually seat belts. In an emergency, passengers panic and revert to what they are familiar with: they struggle to open them like a seat belt in a car, resulting in (sometimes fatal) delay.
Fire is, of course, a major problem, largely because of smoke inhalation. Your safest bet is to sit on the aisle close to an exit. Before takeoff, make a note of how many rows there are between you and the nearest exit. That way, even if the cabin is filled with smoke, you'll still be able to crawl your way out by feel.
Until recently, it was thought impossible for a passenger airliner to make a successful emergency landing on water. To prevent the plane from breaking up on impact, the pilot must slow down as much as possible -but without losing lift- so that the tail of the plane hits the water first.
The wings must be perfectly level: if one wing hits the water before the other, the plane will cartwheel and break up. The fuel must be used up or dumped: it's weight would cause the plane to sink, even if it did land successfully. Then there's the weather, and sea conditions, either of which could wreck the plane, no matter how calmly the pilot behaves.
Despite such unnerving obstacles and such a low margin for error, there have been at least a half a dozen successful emergency landings by airliners on water. The most recent and spectacular example occurred in January 2009, when an Airbus A320, US Airways Flight 1549, ditched in the Hudson River in New York.
Shortly after takeoff, the plane hit a flock of geese and had to make a forced landing on the water. The pilot did this perfectly, saving the lives of all 155 people on board.
(Image credit: Greg L)
Airline statisticians like to say that you are ten times more likely to be hit by a comet than to die in a plane crash. This is because, once every million years or so, an extraterrestrial body collides with earth. The next time this happens, it will probably wipe out half the earth's population. But as far as they know, the last time anyone was hit by a comet was 12,900 years ago.
It is definitely the case, however, that you are many times more likely to die in the taxi cab on the way to and from the airport than you are on the flight itself.