Airline pilots are more than happy to oblige those edgy passengers who've seen more than their share of plane crash horror stories in the movies or on CNN. Good for them for taking on that task, since pilots have enough numbers are on their side to state a rosy case regarding airline safety.
Flying is statistically the safest way to travel by far, according to the International Air Transport Association, which determined that an accident involving a plane took place once every 2.86 million flights. Incidents involving fatalities are far less frequent—one in every eleven million flights. Put in perspective, the chances of getting killed in a car accident is one out of 5,000 trips.
Still, despite those odds, crashes, and fatalities take place and it's reasonable to suggest that one fatal crash out of 11 million flights is still one too many. There's a mishmash of data, statistically and anecdotally, to explain why pilots are tight-lipped about elements that would compromise their arguments and much of that is addressed here. But be advised that flying is still pretty safe and there's always some level of danger out there, regardless of how you travel.
These 11 minutes of a flight are the most dangerous
Those who work in the aviation industry are likely to shudder when asked about the Plus Three Minus Eight rule. That's another way of saying flights are most vulnerable to danger during the initial three minutes and the final eight minutes, periods when planes are in take-off and landing mode.
Roughly 80 percent of aircraft crashes occur within these time frames. Given that they're also stages when it's absolutely necessary to have a pilot at the controls, it's no coincidence that crash investigators usually concentrate on human error as a probable cause.
As for the remaining 20 percent, those take place when planes have achieved altitude, usually the safest part of the journey. According to a National Public Radio report, when a crash takes place mid-flight, the most probable causes are mechanical failure or sabotage.
What happens in the cockpit stays in the cockpit
No pilot would ever consider telling passengers about nodding off while on duty, but the reality is far from the case. A European Cockpit Association study determined that at least 40 percent of British pilots fell asleep at the controls. And twice that many admitted they downplayed their exhaustion to avoid the stigma of being unfit for duty.
At least their dietary concerns are taken care of. Pilots don't eat airline cuisine, and the two in control of the plane consume totally different meals in case one contracts food poisoning.
They're also not allowed to carry into the cockpit books, portable video games or any other diversionary items. And they'd better have strong bladders since they're forbidden from leaving the cockpit and their partners under any circumstances. That's to prevent instances of rogue pilot sabotage, such as the 2015 Germanwings crash involving a suicidal pilot.
If you hear any of these, start worrying!
When pilots warn you about turbulence, it's rarely a big deal. What they won't tell you about are updrafts, which are pockets of warm air that occur during a storm and can suck a plane upward and potentially out of control. They're far more dangerous and according to NASA, those conditions will be far more frequent thanks to global warming.
Pilots are good at mitigating a situation, though, especially when an engine conks out, in which case they'll let you know they have a slight engine problem. But most flights can still carry on without incident.
However, if you overhear a sequence of numbers among flight staff, get concerned. Any mention of the number 7500 means a hijacking is in progress. If you hear 7600, that means communications are gone. And 7700 indicates a state of emergency has taken place.
In emergencies, you may have less time than you think
Emergencies call for fast thinking because time is fleeting. Such is the case of oxygen masks dropping down and being told to put yours on first before helping someone else. But they never tell you why. The cold, hard truth is you only have 15-20 seconds to strap it in place before you pass out. Once they're on and if you're a long way from home, only 15 minutes of oxygen is available; after that, your best option is hoping the pilot descends to a more breathable altitude.
In the case of landing when a plane is on fire, the Federal Aviation Agency assessed that passengers have only 90 seconds to escape before flames engulf the interior. And in the event of a crash or fire, that same agency assessed your odds of surviving are even better if you are within five rows of an exit.
Where you sit could be critical
Passengers choose seats for a variety of reasons. Many prefer the middle by the wings since it's the most stable part of the plane, especially during turbulence. Those who get cold easily can sit in the rear to take advantage of the heating which flows from front to back. And others bent on avoiding a deplaning queue prefer the front.
But if you've got survival on the brain, take the advice of the Federal Aviation Administration's Cabin Safety Research Technical Group. They determined that passengers in the rear were least likely to die in a plane crash, a fatality rate of 32 percent, as opposed to 38 percent in the front and 39 percent in the middle. However, the odds were the worst at 44 percent for those in middle-section aisle seats.
As for folks heading to the back, at least they can gloat about their chances of survival when they pass the first-class section while boarding.