It feels so good to complain about how much air travel sucks. Between endless security lines, shrinking legroom, flight delays, and jet lag, that’s fair. But when it comes to the most important thing about air travel—safety—we’ve never been in better hands.
“If you're a passenger on a commercial aircraft, rest assured that will probably be the safest thing you do all day,” licensed civil engineer and aviation expert Sarah Hubbard, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute, tells SELF.
Commercial plane crashes resulting in fatalities, though tragic, are incredibly rare.
Until the Southwest Airlines incident that killed one woman in April 2018, nine years had passed without someone dying due to an accident on a U.S. carrier, a representative of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tells SELF. Consider the fact that the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization handles around 42,000 flights carrying 2.5 million people every single day. “It’s just staggering how unlikely it is anything will happen,” Hubbard says. (Private planes are a bit less safe, though. In 2016, 386 people died in private plane crashes in the United States, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB].)
The Southwest incident also underlines another important point about aviation safety: The cataclysmic crashes we see in movies where nearly everybody on board perishes are even more unlikely. “The types of accidents that we do see are mostly survivable,” airline crash investigator and former pilot Shawn Pruchnicki, a faculty member in the Department of Aviation at Ohio State University, tells SELF.
Even though your chances of being in a life-threatening plane crash are almost infinitesimal, there are actually things you can do to increase your chances of surviving one—even if you aren’t the one flying the plane. Perhaps you have travel anxiety and are looking for peace of mind or are just a curious frequent flyer. Either way, there’s no harm in keeping the following expert advice in mind, just in case.
1. Choose a seat as close as possible to an exit.
One of the questions Pruchnicki gets most often is: Where is the safest place to sit on the plane? A) It’s complicated. B) It doesn’t matter all that much. “Statistically, there's not much of a difference,” Pruchnicki says.
However, there is some evidence that people in the back of the plane tend to fare a little better in accidents, Pruchnicki says, because the point of impact is typically in the front of the plane. That said, the evidence isn’t strong enough that you need to resign yourself to sitting in the last row for the rest of your life.
Official organizations like the NTSB and FAA don’t release analyses of where is safest to sit. But in 2015, TIME magazine looked at 35 years of FAA aircraft accident data. Based on the 17 incidents that had fatalities and survivors (and for which seating charts were available), they found that the back third of the plane had a slight advantage with an average 32 percent fatality rate, compared with 39 percent for the middle third and 38 percent for the front third. A 2007 analysis by Popular Mechanics, which analyzed the NTSB data for commercial plane crashes in the United States since 1971, also found that the back of the plane had slightly higher average survival rates. But the data doesn’t point to one part of the plane being overwhelmingly safer than the others.
What’s more important is sitting close to an exit. Pruchnicki himself always chooses exit rows located over the wing, both for the extra legroom and the fact that if something happens, he can evacuate ASAP. On the other hand, as he explains, that puts you on top of the fuel tanks, which…isn’t great if there’s an explosion.
As you can see, the safest seat on the plane really depends on the situation. Sit near an exit if you can, but don’t bankrupt yourself to do it. Your plane will likely make it to the sky and back without issue.
2. Count the number of rows between you and the nearest exit.
That way you’ll know exactly where to go in an evacuation. “Evacuations are typically done in a visibility-challenged environment,” Pruchnicki says. If you can’t see due to smoke or because you’re on all-fours, it’ll be easier to find your way when you already know how many rows stand between you and the nearest exit.
Don’t forget to look both ways when sussing out your exit strategy. “The flight attendant always says the closest exit may be behind you, but we usually don’t stop and look,” Hubbard says. This knowledge could be helpful if, for example, the exit in front of you is obstructed or the line that way isn’t moving.
3. Listen to the flight attendants during the safety briefing, and follow along in your pamphlet.
Yes, even if you’ve heard it a dozen times. “It’s always a good idea to get a refresher from the flight attendant,” Pruchnicki says.
You’re probably thinking something like, “OK, I know how to fasten and unfasten my seatbelt.” And you do! But a plane crash is the kind of chaotic situation that might make you revert to the same kind of unbuckling maneuver that works with a car seatbelt, Pruchnicki explains, adding that experts believe this has led to people dying in plane crashes after they’ve survived the initial impact.
The safety demo is also a good reminder of how to do the brace position. This is absolutely key in the event of a crash landing because it helps dissipate the large amounts of force that your body will be subject to, Pruchnicki says, decreasing your likelihood of sustaining a serious injury.
4. Figure out where your life jacket is.
This is another tip that only takes a moment but could save you valuable time if your plane crashes. Pruchnicki points to U.S. Airways flight 1549, also called the Miracle on the Hudson, as the perfect example of how important it is to locate your life vest: “Their plane went down so [quickly] … this was not a great time to be fumbling around trying to figure out where the life vest was.”
The life jacket is typically under your seat or stowed in the armrest, but it depends on the aircraft, which is why you should read the safety briefing. “Usually you just have to put your hand underneath your seat, and you can feel the box down there,” Pruchnicki says.
5. Wear comfortable shoes you can move in quickly, and consider wearing clothes that would protect you at least a bit in a fire.
Skip the flip-flops. Yes, they’re easy to slip on and off at airport security. But think about an evacuation scenario. “You might have to walk through a hazardous environment—burning fuel or a lot of sharp, torn metal,” Pruchnicki explains. For the same reason, you may want to pack high heels instead of wearing them on the plane.
If you’re really committed to being as cautious as possible, you could think about wearing clothes that cover your limbs and are made of less flammable fabrics in order to protect yourself in the case of a fire, Hubbard says. Think: long pants, long sleeves, and items made out of leather or natural fibers like cotton and wool instead of more flammable synthetics.
Now is a good time to reiterate that, statistically, you could wear flip-flops, shorts, and a tank top on every flight for the rest of your life and be totally fine. You absolutely don’t need to feel obligated to cover every inch of your body every time you board a plane—this is just explaining the full scope of actions you could take if you want to.
6. Don’t sleep during takeoff and landing.
A statistical analysis of commercial jet accidents performed by Boeing found that 13 percent of accidents worldwide between 2007 and 2016 happened during takeoff and the initial climb, while 48 percent occurred during final approach and landing. “The more alert you can be [at those times], the better,” Pruchnicki says.
The astronomically low chance of crashing means that, realistically, being alert can take a back seat to napping if you’re really exhausted. Similarly, if you take anti-anxiety sedatives to manage a fear of flying, we’re not telling you to go without those just to be as aware as possible during takeoff and landing. Do what works best for you.
7. If you’re evacuating, leave your carry-on behind.
Airplane crashes are like house fires: Forget about your stuff and just worry about getting yourself out. Trying to take your things along could compromise your own safety and that of everyone else, Pruchnicki says.
Planes are designed to be evacuated in about 90 seconds, per FAA requirements. You have to move quickly. Carrying your stuff with you can slow you down, keep your hands full when they should be free, and take up precious space in the tiny cabin. You could also risk damaging the evacuation slide, Hubbard adds. No one wants to be that person.
8. In a water evacuation, don’t inflate your life jacket until you’re out of the plane.
“Inflating your life vest in the cabin is not a good idea in any situation,” Hubbard says. The life jacket meant to save you from drowning could actually cause you to drown if you puff it up too soon. “If the cabin were to fill up with water, it would make it harder to get to and escape through the emergency exits if your life vest is inflated,” Hubbard explains.
That’s not all. “Everybody inflating their life vest makes it harder to move around,” she explains. You’re also more likely to puncture or damage your vest if you inflate it inside the airplane, she adds.
9. If you have to evacuate the plane, don’t just throw open the first exit you see.
In a panic, your knee-jerk reaction might be to bolt through the nearest exit. You’re actually supposed to wait until you get those instructions from a crew member, Pruchnicki says.
Opening an emergency exit without being instructed to do so can be incredibly risky because there could be external hazards you don’t know about. If the left wing is on fire, for instance, you won’t want to open the left emergency exit. “Crew members are trained to look at the window and assess if that's a good side of the aircraft to evacuate or not,” Pruchnicki says.
Other times, the safest thing to do is stay put and not open any exits at all, Pruchnicki says. Unless the entire crew somehow happens to be incapacitated, wait for their cue before you open any exits.
10. Always obey the crew, because they’re there to keep you safe.
Listening to the flight attendants and pilots—and following their directions—is paramount when you’re flying, even if you know chances are nothing will go wrong (or you don’t understand the point of their instructions). “There's a strong protocol for everything,” Pruchnicki says. No matter how many airplane safety articles you read, the crew is your best source for survival.