According to Arnold Barnett, who has calculated the chances of a plane crashing, and is an expert in the field of aviation safety and risk and Professor of Statistics at MIT, the odds of being killed in a plane crash are exceptionally low:
“If you take one flight a day, you would on average need to fly every day for 55,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash.”
But if a plane does crash, what are the odds of surviving?
Do you have more chances of surviving a plane that crashes on land or in the ocean?
What can you do to increase your odds of surviving a plane crash?
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95% Chance of Surviving a Plane Crash
The US National Transportation Safety Board reviewed aviation accidents from 1983-1999 and found that more than 95% of passengers survived accidents, including 55% in the most serious incidents.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much plane crash survival data that is more recent, but it’s good to know that year-on-year, aviation safety is improving, so your odds of surviving a plane crash should be even higher.
You Are Less Likely to Survive an Ocean Plane Crash
Your chances of surviving a plane crash in the ocean and worse than on land for a number of reasons.
- Far Away From Land
Most planes that crash in the ocean occur very far away from land with radar contact lost, and with no communication warning of an impending crash at sea.
Additionally, it can take hours or days to mount a rescue, and the weather, darkness, and trying to locate the crashed plane all works against a successful rescue.
- Cold Oceans
Most of the world’s oceans are very cold, so you will likely succumb to hypothermia if you manage to get out of the plane alive.
- Poor Swimmers
Add to this that most people are average swimmers at best, so drowning becomes more likely.
This becomes even more likely with the stress of the crash and the energy expended to stay afloat.
Of course, this all assumes that you will be conscious be when the plane crashes into the ocean, which is unlikely to be the case.
You Are More Likely to Die in a Car Crash
There are no two ways about it: you are much more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash.
According to the NSC (National Safety Council), the odds of dying in a car crash as a driver are 1 in 114, and 1 in 654 as a passenger.
The odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 9,821, though this accounts for both general aviation, that includes small planes, as well as commercial aviation.
When it comes to commercial aviation, which are the planes we all travel on for vacation and business, if we look at the year 2017, U.S. airlines racked up 19 million hours without a single fatality.
Perhaps 2017 was just an anomaly, you may be thinking.
Well, according to the International Air Transport Association, there was just one major aviation crash for every 7.7 million flights in 2021.
To put it another way, you would need to take a flight every day for 10,078 years to be involved in an air accident with at least one death.
Planes just do not crash that often – at least when fatalities are also involved.
6 Tips to Increase Your Odds of Surviving a Plane Crash
If the worst does happen, and you are involved in a plane crash, there are some things that you can do to increase your chances of survival.
- Sit in one of the back rows
Popular Mechanics did a study in 2007 of air crashes in the US since 1971.
They found that the best place to sit on a plane is at the back, as passengers who sit in the back row have a 40% greater chance of surviving a plane crash than those in the front.
If this isn’t possible, at least avoid the aisles in the middle section.
However, while the back of the plane is usually the safest place to sit on a plane, if there is a fire onboard then it is better to sit in the front of a plane.
Passengers who sit within five rows of an exit have the best chance of escaping a plane when there is a fire onboard.
- Wear your seatbelt
While the importance of wearing a seatbelt when you are in a car, can’t be overstated, you should also make sure you wear your seatbelt when flying.
Wearing your seatbelt will keep you in your seat during turbulence or when there is an impact on the ground.
- Avoid wearing flammable clothes
If there is a fire onboard, the last thing you want to be wearing is anything flammable.
So, next time you fly, make sure that you avoid wearing any flammable items of clothing.
- Wear appropriate shoes
If you have to evacuate a plane, you want to be wearing the right kind of shoes.
While you can wear flip-flops on a plane and might sound like a good idea when you’re flying somewhere hot and sunny, but if you want to increase your chances of surviving a plane crash, wear more appropriate shoes.
You’ll have a much better chance of evacuating an aircraft if you don’t have to run over sharp debris and fire in flip-flops or high heels.
- Avoid certain airlines and planes
We go in much more detail in our What Airline Has Had the Most Crashes article, but, in short, the data tells us that some airlines and planes have been involved in more crashes compared to others.
You might therefore want to avoid flying with certain airlines and on certain planes.
- Pay attention to the safety presentation
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t pay too much attention to flight attendants during the preflight safety briefing.
However, paying attention for a few minutes can be critical in you knowing what to do in the event of a crash and saving your life.
Dying in a Plane Crash is Unlikely to Be Painful
A plane crash can result in survival, a quick death or a slow, painful one.
It depends on the plane’s size, its speed on impact, and whether the plane crashed on land or sea.
In a high-impact crash or when a plane breaks up in the sky, the death is usually very quick and painless.
If a plane crashes, the passengers onboard are still conscious, and circumstances show very little chance of survival, the death could be terrifying, and it will feel like an eternity until the inevitable happens, though this rarely happens.
Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.
Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.
Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).