Listen Up and Fly Right

What's the point of listening to the safety instructions given by flight attendants? If there’s a crash, everybody dies, right? Most airline passengers apparently feel this way. More than half of passengers in a large study by the National Transportation Safety Board admitted to routinely ignoring the flight attendants, heeding no more than half of their little spiel. But what the flight attendants say can very well save lives, because in any airplane accident, passengers are five times more likely to survive than to die.

Look at what happened at Heathrow Airport in London last week. A Boeing 777 crash-landed, tearing off the landing gear and damaging the airplane beyond repair. Yet there were only 13 minor injuries among the 152 passengers.

In 23 of the 27 DC-10 airplanes destroyed in accidents, 90 percent of the passengers have survived. In one 1989 crash in Sioux City, Iowa — a crash so violent that the plane broke into multiple sections and a fireball erupted — 185 of the 296 passengers and crew members survived, including a baby placed on the floor (as instructed).

The flight attendants have reason to tell you, first of all, to keep your seat belt fastened. People have broken their necks bouncing off the ceiling when a plane suddenly drops a few hundred feet in severe turbulence. But for anyone buckled in, a sudden drop, however stomach-churning, poses no danger.

Passengers are often disturbed when they look out the window in mild turbulence and see the wings flapping like a bird’s. But the wings of a large commercial jet have never flapped so violently as to fall off. During certification, the wings of 777 are bent upward 24 feet — the flexibility required to pull out of an emergency dive.

Modern aircraft are built sturdily enough to hold together even with blast damage. In 1986, a Trans World Airlines jet flying over Greece withstood the explosion of a bomb in a piece of luggage. Four passengers were killed, but the plane landed safely, and the other 117 people on board survived. In 1988, after an explosive decompression caused by metal fatigue ripped an 18-by-14-foot hole in the top of the first-class section of a 737 flying over Hawaii, one flight attendant standing nearby was lost. But the passengers were protected by their seat belts.

Other perfectly survivable occurrences include violent engine shuddering, sputtering flames and engine shutdown. Even planes with only two engines are perfectly able to fly with just one. The likeliest outcome is a safe landing at the closest airstrip. In 1965, a 707 landed safely at a California air base after an engine fire had burned off 30 feet of one wing. (The engine fire suppression systems on today’s airplanes would probably have kept that from happening.) In February 2005, one of the four engines on a British Airlines 747 shut down shortly after takeoff from Los Angeles, yet the plane still flew safely to England — causing only a little controversy over the British pilots’ interpretation of American flight safety rules.

After an emergency landing or a crash during takeoff, it’s important to get out of the plane as soon as possible. Fuel can easily leak and ignite, so a post-crash fire is a real danger. But evacuating a plane full of people is surprisingly easy, as long as passengers don’t panic. When certifying the design of a new aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration requires that it be possible to evacuate the plane within 90 seconds even with unrehearsed passengers and half the exits blocked.

This is exactly what happened in 2005 when an Airbus landing in Toronto overran the runway and crashed. The flight attendants escorted out 309 passengers and crew members in less than two minutes, even though four of the eight exits were unusable and many passengers paused on the way out to pick up carry-on bags and aim cellphone cameras. The plane then exploded in flames, burning the top half away and leaving the hull looking like a filleted fish.

It was not surprising, after the recent crash landing in London, how easily the flight attendants directed passengers and crew onto the emergency exit slides. Fortunately, few of us ever have the opportunity to witness how well trained the flight attendants are. But we should still pay attention to what they say.

George Bibel, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of North Dakota, the author of Beyond the Black Box: The Forensics of Airplane Crashes and is at work on a book about train wrecks.