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Safety Tip: Listen to Those Boring Demos!

Illustration for TIME by Nigel Robinson

Working as a British Airways flight attendant for eight years, Anna Damski certainly witnessed her share of bad flying. But it wasn't the pilots who concerned her; it was the passengers. "People seem to feel that they don't have any control once they get on a plane, and that just isn't true," she says. If you think flying safely is all up to the pilots, think again. While you can't control the plane--thankfully--you can learn how to be a better passenger. Damski, now an inflight-safety consultant, says smarter traveling starts with listening to the inflight safety presentation. "Even passengers who fly a lot might not know what type of aircraft they're on, and this could become critical."

The first thing to do is to familiarize yourself with your surroundings. Figure out which exit is closest, and count how many seats there are between it and you. The cabin could be filled with smoke or very dimly lit in an emergency. Counting seatbacks could be your only way out. Also, formulating a game plan could help you think more clearly in an emergency. Cabin crew have reported that, after a crash, passengers have been known to head for the door they used to board the aircraft instead of the nearest exit. Some people don't even get as far as going the wrong way. When the KLM and Pan Am 747s collided in Tenerife in 1977, an elderly couple who escaped from the Pan Am jet said many passengers were so frozen by fear and confusion that they didn't try to get out of their seats.

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While exit-rows are often coveted for their extra legroom (and because it's logically safer to sit near the emergency exit), they do come with the added responsibility of possibly having to open the door. In the British Airtours fire at Manchester Airport in 1985, a passenger seated by one exit couldn't figure out how to pop open the escape hatch, delaying evacuation by a crucial minute.

Turbulence is much more common than incidents of aircraft evacuation. It ranges from the bothersome spill-your-Merlot variety to the more deadly and unpredictable phenomenon known as clear-air turbulence. This past October, a China Southern Airlines flight from Kunming to Hong Kong hit clear-air turbulence and dropped 600 m in 10 seconds, injuring 45 people on board. At the time of the plunge the fasten-seatbelt sign wasn't on, and passengers who were unbuckled were thrown into the ceiling of the plane, some of them suffering spinal injuries. Wearing a seatbelt snugly at all times, while not as comfortable as sitting unbuckled, makes a difference. Overhead bins also pose a risk, as passengers can be injured by falling luggage. If you see someone grunting with effort to clean-and-press a bag of rocks over your head, it's a good idea to ask that person, or a member of the cabin crew, to find it a new home.

Traveling with children makes safety awareness all the more important. U.S. airlines don't allow infant restraints that attach to the parent's seatbelt, as Federal Aviation Administration tests show they can result in the child being crushed by the parent or flying into the back of the seat in front. Children under two years of age are permitted to ride on a parent's lap, but buying them their own seat and strapping them into an approved car-seat is encouraged. Parents who leave their older children unattended or, worse, let them roam freely around the plane, run risks beyond their fellow passengers lynching them. First, kids are lighter and more severely affected by mild turbulence, which can send them sailing through the air. Second, the galleys where crew prepare food and drink tend to contain extremely hot water and heating elements that can burn children. Placing kids by the window or on an inside seat, so they have to climb over you to get out, is a good way to keep tabs on them.

Drinking too much alcohol is a bad idea because it will impair your ability to deal with an emergency. Since an aircraft cabin is pressurized only to about 2,700 m, alcohol has a more potent effect. So going easy is recommended. While you can't control the plane, you can at least control yourself.

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