Despite recent catastrophes, we live in an era of unprecedented airplane safety. “There are a range of estimates out there, but based on its analysis of U.S. Census data, it puts the odds of dying as a plane passenger at 1 in 205,552,” reports SBS News. “That compares with odds of 1 in 4,050 for dying as a cyclist; 1 in 1,086 for drowning; and 1 in 102 for a car crash.”
To further quell the anxieties of passengers aboard a 175,000-pound object soaring above the clouds, we get the airplane safety talk. Y’know, the one you’ve watched unfold a hundred times in front of you, but if you were ever asked to actually repeat its information, you’d likely stare catatonically into the abyss before mumbling something about lifejackets under the seat.
You’re not alone: “If you saw photos of the depressurized cabin on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, which suffered a major engine failure in April, you may have noticed that almost none of the passengers had their oxygen masks correctly positioned over their noses and mouths,” reports The Washington Post.
And yet — and I can’t stress this enough — they were all fine. So is there any actual point to giving us the information in said talk? After all, time and again, history has shown that most flights are fine, and in the rare case that a plane crashes, pretty much everyone on said plane, well, dies. Where is the mythical in between that’s addressed by the safety talk?
First and foremost, it’s important to note that a 2017 report claimed that 61 percent of fatal accidents from 2007 to 2016 occurred during the takeoff, initial climb, final approach or landing portion of the flight, so a lot of the stuff they tell you to do on takeoff and landing could theoretically be useful. “A secured tray table would clear a path for you and other passengers to evacuate in an emergency. ‘It’s actually a [Federal Aviation Administration] regulation that all tray tables must be moved to the upright position before movement on the tarmac,’ Morgan Johnston, JetBlue’s corporate communications manager, told Travel + Leisure,” via Reader’s Digest.
That bright yellow oxygen mask is also worth your time (you know, the bit that instructs you to fight against your maternal/paternal instinct and put your own mask on before your child). “According to Airbus, if a plane loses pressure at 40,000 feet, those on board have as little as 18 seconds of ‘useful consciousness’ without supplemental oxygen. Once the euphoria is over, hypoxia renders one unconscious and can cause brain damage or death. So wear the mask,” reports The Telegraph.
Okay, fine. We’ll wear the mask. But what about those lifejackets and seats that “can be used as a floatation device in event of an emergency”? Those are just to make us feel like we stand some kind of chance if we plummet into the middle of the Pacific and somehow manage to stay intact, right?
Despite what some people believe (cough * my dumb editor who repeatedly asserted that the “Miracle on the Hudson” was the only successful water landing in aviation history when he assigned this piece * cough), there have, in fact, been multiple unplanned water landings where everyone, or at least most everyone, on board survived — at least six such landings by my count. This being the case, knowing how to use a life jacket in the event of a crash into a body of water seems appropriate.
Well, in theory, at least. I should note that in the most famous of these landings — i.e., Captain Sully’s landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River — although everyone did survive, almost everyone deplaned without their life vests, according to HuffPo.
But let’s say your plane landed in the middle of the ocean: According to a different article in The Telegraph, “the life jacket, if donned correctly and operated properly will keep even an unconscious person safely afloat.” Additionally, per NBC News, if you can stay calm and move out of the plane quickly during the first 90 seconds of a crash, your odds of survival are much greater. “Some passengers are in such a state of panic that they can’t unbuckle their seat belts: NTSB reports have found that many crash victims are found in their seats with their seat belts still buckled,” the network reports. Of course, if you do make it out with your life vest, you might die slowly of exposure as you desperately try to flag down the oil tanker on the distant horizon with your tiny little light and whistle, but hey, at least you got to be outdoors for a while.
Speaking of rapid deplaning, according to the same Reader’s Digest report mentioned above, the reason you’re instructed to put your seat in an upright position before takeoff and landing is because a reclined seat could, in the event of an evacuation, slow things down. “Plus,” it goes on to say, “the more you’re leaning back, the harder it is to adopt the ‘brace position’ used in emergency landings — and as mentioned, takeoffs and landings are when things are most likely to go wrong.”
But let’s talk about that brace position, because again, there’s no bracing for going face first into the side of a mountain like a flaming dart. For the uninitiated, the brace position is where “passengers are required to place their feet flat on the floor whilst bending forward with their hands clasped behind their head,” reports Express. According to The Independent, there are several theories about the true purpose of this safety procedure: “Some have suggested that it is only useful for preserving passengers’ teeth, allowing for easier identification (using dental records) after a crash,” reports The Independent. “Another is that the position actually increases the chance of death, by breaking your neck, and is subsequently recommended by airlines to reduce medical insurance costs, or, to the more morbid, to ensure a quick and painless death.”
These are all just theories, though. The Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters took it upon themselves to look into the issue and found that the brace position did actually improve a person’s chances of avoiding a serious injury during a (survivable) crash. “More recently, a 2012 Channel 4 programme saw a real passenger jet deliberately crashed into the Sonoran Desert in Mexico,” per the same Independent report. “Three dummies on board were arranged in various positions: one in the classic ‘brace’ position and with a seat belt fastened, one with just the seat belt fastened and a third with neither. Experts concluded that the dummy in the brace position with its seat belt fastened would have survived the impact.”
Look, chances are, if your plane is going down, you’re going to die. But you might as well pay attention to that safety talk first, because if you hit that terrible sweet spot of, “We’re going down, but not necessarily in multiple pieces,” it really could be the difference between life and being identified by your dental records.