Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in March 2009. It has been updated and edited slightly.
Grisly plane crashes make headlines and capture the public imagination. Yet safety advances and improvements in staff training have helped improve air-crash survival rates in recent years.
Last year, 23 fatal airline crashes killed 511 people, well below a 10-year average of 34 incidents killing 773 people per year, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
Hundreds of thousands of flights – the vast majority – take off and land safely. That said, passengers’ decisions and actions can mean the difference between life and death on those rare occasions when planes do crash.
Here are 10 things that experts suggest you do to prepare yourself in the unlikely event of a problem on your next flight:
1. Stay calm.
Keep a clear head. Panic doesn’t help.
2. Have a plan.
When you board a plane, get in tune with your environment. Visibility will be reduced in a smoke-filled cabin, so count the number of rows between you and the two nearest exits.
3. Listen to the preflight safety briefing and study the seat-back safety card.
Don’t assume you know it all, as every type of airplane has different safety instructions. If you’re sitting in an exit row, study the door and make sure you know how to open it.
4. Dress properly.
You will need to be able to stay warm if you survive a crash, so wear long sleeves and trousers. Avoid wearing high heels, as these must be removed before evacuating via an emergency slide.
5. Keep your seat belt securely fastened – but remember how it unfastens.
“It has been found that people who have survived emergency landings frantically search for where they expect the seat belt to fasten (on the hip as in a car),” says Andy Clubb, safety course director for British Airways. “You often find bruising and cuts in that area,” he added.
6. Don’t spend too much time looking for the safest seat: It may not exist.
In 2007, Popular Mechanics magazine analyzed data for crashes since 1971 and found that more passengers near the tail of a plane survived crashes than those in the first few rows up front.
A seat next to an exit does not always guarantee a speedy evacuation since some exits may not function after an accident.
And while an aisle seat may ensure an easier exit, you are also at risk from falling objects from overhead bins.
7. Check for a life jacket before taking off.
It will be in a plastic casing, usually under the seat.
8. Do not inflate your jacket in the plane.
Many of the 123 who were killed in the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 off the Comoro Islands near Africa in 1996 had inflated their jackets in the cabin. This meant that they were unable to dive and reach the exits when the cabin flooded.
9. If worst comes to worst, brace yourself for impact.
The aim is to prevent being rapidly propelled forward. Return your seat to the upright position and lower your head to your knees or rest it on the seat in front of you.
Put your hands behind your head, but do not lace your fingers. Keep your elbows to the side of your head, but not over knees.
Many of the victims and survivors of the M1 Kegworth crash of 1989 (79 of the 126 people on board survived) had legs broken below the knee as their legs were forced against the seats in front of them. So keep your feet as far back as possible.
And ignore Internet rumors that the brace position guarantees to break your neck and back to make death as painless as possible, says Clubb. It has been proven to minimize injury.
10. If you have to jump, do it.
When it’s time to leave the aircraft, exit will be by slide. Jump feet-first, arms folded across chest and lean forward. If you hesitate, Clubb warns, a member of the cabin crew is likely to push you.
Emma Clarke wrote this story in 2009. Emily Smith updated it this week.