Skip to main content

How to save your life in a plane crash

By William McGee, Special to CNN
July 8, 2013 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years. In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years.
HIDE CAPTION
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William McGee: Seeing survival as a "miracle" lulls fliers into ignoring safety procedures
  • McGee: Stay alert during takeoff, landing and severe turbulence
  • McGee: Listening, staying buckled, knowing where exits are can save your life
  • He says don't even think about retrieving luggage while evacuating

Editor's note: William McGee is the author of "Attention All Passengers: The Airlines' Dangerous Descent—and How to Reclaim Our Skies."

(CNN) -- There is still much we don't know about what happened during the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, in which two people were killed in San Francisco on Saturday. But we do know that of the 305 survivors on board that Boeing 777, 123 actually walked away from the scene, something that may seem unimaginable if you view the amateur video of the wide-body jet somersaulting while bursting into flames.

The city's fire chief described the survival of so many as "nothing short of a miracle."

But, although we persist in thinking divine intervention is the only thing that can save a flight in peril, it's no longer a miracle when even hundreds of passengers survive the worst of accidents. The "miracle of Toronto" and the "miracle on the Hudson" are just two examples of recent flight disasters in which everyone on board survived. And the danger of "miracle" thinking is that it lulls some passengers into not learning more about how best practices can save lives.

Bill McGee
Bill McGee

Are all airline crashes survivable? Of course not. But the statistics tell the story. In 2001, the National Transportation Safety Board released an exhaustive study of U.S. airline accidents over a 17-year period and found that 95.7% of occupants survived.

I wrote a book that focused on airline safety, and my research led me to interview dozens of aviation safety experts, including several who work for Boeing in Seattle. (The Asiana flight was on a Boeing 777.) In recent years, aircraft manufacturers have focused on a multipronged approach to survivability: In addition to accident avoidance, great strides have been made in helping occupants survive the impact, post-crash fires and fumes, and safely evacuate.

Boeing experts told me that many of the most significant advancements in safety were developing safer materials for carpeting, seats, and other cabin components. These new materials reduce flammability and toxic fumes during those critical first minutes after a fire starts. Experts also pointed to improved evacuation slides, which historically suffered high failure rates during actual emergencies.

But it isn't all about technological advancements; human factors also play a critical role. And here is where "miraculous survival" thinking is a danger: It can cause some passengers to not learn more about how best practices -- not miracles -- can save their lives.

Surviving a plane crash
Video shows plane's moment of impact
Social media in aftermath of plane crash
Flight 214's communications revealed

Even the most frequent fliers may not realize how simple actions can dramatically improve their chances of survival. I'm not suggesting that flying has to be a white-knuckle, continually vigilant experience. I am suggesting that you not zone out during "key phases" of the flight, such as takeoff, landing, severe turbulence, and irregular operations. Only 11% of fatal accidents happened at cruising altitude.

Instead, consider the following to enhance your safety:

Listen: You may be a veteran flier -- but that doesn't mean you don't need to pay attention during the preflight instructions. Emergency egress procedures can vary widely, even among similar aircraft types.

Dress smart: Wear comfortable, flat-heeled shoes that won't fall off easily. Flip-flops and high heels are the wrong attire for evacuation slides. Avoid highly flammable polyesters and pantyhose; think cotton and wool.

Seating: Choosing a seat involves many factors, but access to emergency exits may end up being the most important for you. Count the rows to the nearest exit, since you may need to find it under dark or smoky conditions.

Stay buckled: You know that admonition to always stay belted while you're in your seat? Do it. Severe turbulence can maim and even kill.

Secure your stuff: Loose items = projectiles.

Drinking/medications/sleeping: During key phases of flight, it's critical that you remain sharp. Booze and meds can severely impair your ability to follow instructions.

Strapping: The only safe place for a child under 2 years old is in an approved restraint system. Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration agree on this, though the FAA won't mandate that airlines ban children sitting in adults' laps. Don't believe that G-forces are for real? Take another look at the Asiana video; then imagine holding a child throughout that ordeal.

In the years ahead, the airline industry may remember Asiana Flight 214 for another reason. An alarming number of passengers on Saturday took the time to retrieve their luggage -- even bags in the overhead bins, no less -- before evacuating that burning aircraft. Words fail when contemplating how such thoughtless actions threatened so many lives. So let's add this to the list: Don't even think about evacuating while carrying anything that isn't alive.

Inevitably, some will scoff at learning more about survivability. I've read scores of armchair experts who assert that no one can walk away from a plane crash. Don't listen to them -- they can cost you or your loved ones your lives.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William McGee.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1827 GMT (0227 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT