Top 10 airline safety questions
In addition to these general airline safety questions, AirSafe.com also addresses airport and airline security questions and questions about what items are prohibited and permitted on an airplane.
- Where is the safest place to sit on an airplane?
For example, there have been many accidents involving heavy smoke or fire where survival depended on the ability of the passengers to not panic and to quickly remove themselves and others from the aircraft after landing. Dr. Todd Curtis of AirSafe.com answered the question about the safest seat on an airplane more fully in an article at AirSafeNews.com
- Which is the safest airline to fly?
Clearly there are some major airlines such as Southwest of the USA which have not had a passenger die in an accident and others such as United Airlines and Korean Air which have had several fatal events. Those facts don't make one airline automatically safer than the other although it does affect the public's perception of safety. The most important indicator of the overall safety of an airline is how it is regulated by its nation's civil aviation authority.
Airlines operating large capacity passenger aircraft in the major industrialized countries have to follow the strictest safety regulations. While the airlines operating smaller capacity aircraft have the choice of operating under the same rules, these smaller aircraft are not certified to the same standards as larger ones. Just as importantly, the airports and air traffic control system have to adhere to similarly high standards. Beyond that, use your good common sense.
If an airline is notorious for poor on time performance, lots of passenger complaints, and severe financial problems, then perhaps it is time to find an alternative airline. While there are some airlines with no fatal plane crashes, it doesn't mean that these airline is safe, since fatal crashes are very rare for airlines of every size.
- Which aircraft model is the safest?
In general, all aircraft in a particular class have to adhere to the same set of standards. When safety concerns arise because of one or more accidents associated with a particular model, the civil aviation authorities of the major industrialized countries will usually require that the issue be addressed in all relevant aircraft models.
For example, fatal airline accidents due to wind shear in the 1970s and 1980s in the US led to a number of innovations in aircraft and ground wind shear detection systems and also in flight crew training which has led to a reduction in the risk of accidents from that weather issue. While accidents of any kind are rare, you can get a better idea of how safe an aircraft model is by comparing how often passengers die in a plane crash involving that particular aircraft model.
- What kind of emergency am I most likely to face?
For every accident, there are dozens, even hundreds of unusual circumstances that can happen during a flight. For a passenger, the most likely emergencies that you will face where you will have to do something is an evacuation of the aircraft using the emergency slides or using the emergency oxygen system.
In most cases, the evacuation is ordered as a precautionary measure, not because the passengers face imminent danger. Emergency oxygen masks may be deployed automatically or be deployed manually by the flight crew. In most cases, deployment of the masks does not indicate that the passengers are in imminent danger. For an example of an emergency evacuation that went very well, you can check out this 2005 Air France crash in Toronto where all the passengers escaped from a burning aircraft.
- How should I prepare to face these two situations?
In the case of evacuation by the emergency slides, the best preparation is to be familiar with the location of the exits, be ready to follow the commands of the flight and cabin crew, and to wear slide friendly clothes. Specifically, high heeled shoes may cause the slide to rip, so if you have them on, take them off before leaving your seat.
In the case of deployment of emergency oxygen, your first priority is to put on your own mask. If the cabin is depressurized, you face the risk of loss of consciousness. Putting on your mask first decreases the risk of your passing out before having the opportunity to help your children or other passengers with their oxygen masks. You can review additional safety advice on AirSafe.com's top ten travel safety tips page and also on AirSafe.com's passenger traval safety advice page.
- If the plane crashes, don't most people die?
One can argue this question several ways. Based on a review of accidents between 1978 and 1995 with at least one fatality to a passenger, there were a total of 164 fatal accidents involving large jet transports designed in western Europe or the U.S. In 68 cases, all passengers died and in 15 others between 90% and 100% of the passengers died. In 37 cases less than 10% of the passengers died. Among propeller driven aircraft, there were 178 events involving aircraft designed outside of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Of those, all were killed in 108 cases, between 90% and 100% in six cases, and less than 10% in nine cases.
Another way to look at this is through the AirSafe.com method for evaluating plane crash survivor rates, where the estimated fatal crash rate is reduced if there are surviving passengers. For example, a crash where all passengers die is counted as one event, and if there were 50% survivors, it counts as half of an event.
- Who decides on what changes are made for safety?
In general, the civil aviation authorities of several key countries, primarily the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, take the lead on making changes in areas such aircraft design, aircraft operation, and pilot training. Other major industrial nations have civil aviation authorities that have regulations and requirements similar to the leading countries. In the rest of the world, the International Civil Aviation Organization plays a similar influential role. You can check out some of the other organizations responsible for airline and aviation safety.
- Who investigates airline accidents?
In most cases, formal airline accident investigations are the responsibility of either the nation where the accident occurred or by the nation where the aircraft was registered. Depending on the accident, several organizations may have a major role in the investigation.
In the United States, an airliner crash would have the following groups directly involved in the accident investigation and analysis: the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, the airline operating the accident aircraft, the aircraft manufacturer, and the engine manufacturer. If the event involved sabotage or hijacking, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation would also be involved.
- Is flying getting safer or less safe today compared with 10 or 20 years ago?
In the last fifteen years or so, the fatal accident rate for passenger aircraft has not significantly changed. What has changed is the number of flights performed around the world, more than doubling during that same time. If you look at the accident rate, things haven't changed much. If look at the number of accidents, the amount of media coverage, and level of public concern, then flying may seem either more or less safe depending on how much attention is paid by the world media.
For example, over a period of about seven weeks in August and September 2005, there were a total of eight events that resulted either in significant numbers of fatalities or were spectacular events that involved no fatalities but that generated intense worldwide media attention. Overall, 2005 had an average number of fatal events, but during those two months there were a heightened awareness of safety on the part of the general public.
One problem with talking about safety is that different people use different definitions. At AirSafe.com, safety can't be measured with numbers, but risk can be measured. Check out this description of the differences between risk and safety to get a better understanding of how this site deals with safety questions.
- How often do airliners crash?
Serious airline crashes that kill passengers are rare. Since AirSafe began tracking these kinds of events in 1996, there have been as few as seven events with passenger fatalities in 2008, and as many as 19 crashes and other events with passenger fatalities in 1997 . These numbers include deaths due to deliberate actions such as airliner hijackings, or acts of sabotage or terror, and crashes involving small airliners in all parts of the world.
Crashes are much less common in the largest industrialized countries. For example, for the five years from 2005 to 2009, AirSafe.com lists 43 crashes and other events that killed at least one airline passenger. Airlines from the US, Canada, the European Community, Australia, and Japan were responsible for about three quarters of all airline traffic, but less than one quarter of the fatal events (9 of 43) took place in those countries or involved an airline based in those countries.
Bonus Tip: If you are traveling to Australia, Canada, or for that matter to any other country, make sure you deal with your passport application or passport renewal issues well ahead of time.
Other Common Questions
What plane crashes killed the most people?
How do I deal with fear of flying?
What can I take on the plane?
What should I pack in my carry-on bag?
Can I get injured or killed because of turbulence?
Has there ever been a plane crash with a sole survivor?
Cartoon by Andy Singer