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 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT