How to save your life in a plane crash

Editor’s Note: William McGee is the author of “Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent—and How to Reclaim Our Skies.”

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

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

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.