The Great Plane Crash Myth

True or false: When a plane crashes, everyone dies. In an exclusive excerpt from his upcoming book The Survivor’s Club, Ben Sherwood explains why the answer is false.

True or false: When a plane crashes, everyone dies. If you’re like most people, you answered true. After all, the biggest disasters are tattooed in our memories. May 1996: ValuJet 592 slams into the Florida Everglades with 110 people on board. No survivors. July 1996: TWA 800 explodes with 230 on board. No survivors. September 1998: Swissair 111 crashes near Nova Scotia with 229 on board. No survivors. October 1999: EgyptAir 990 dives into the Atlantic Ocean with 217 on board. No survivors. It’s easy to think the chances of surviving a plane crash are hopeless. Indeed, during the safety briefing on a recent flight, a fellow passenger whispered to me: “If this plane goes down, we’re all dead and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

One dangerous consequence of the Myth of Hopelessness is that when people believe there’s nothing they can do to save themselves, they put themselves in even greater peril.

I’m embarrassed to admit that every time I fly, I go through a litany of superstitious rituals. I always tap the right doorjamb of the plane when I step aboard. During takeoff and landing, I mumble a short prayer that I learned long ago in Sunday school. So imagine my surprise—and relief—when I discovered that one of the world’s leading authorities on plane crashes is also afraid of flying. Arnold Barnett is a sixty-year-old professor at MIT who specializes in operations research, a field of applied math that uses numbers to improve complex systems like air traffic control and assembly lines. Barnett tells me that his interest in aviation safety grew from his flying phobia. Nearly two decades ago, he figured he might calm his fears by learning more about the risks of dying in a plane crash. He started out by asking: Why do people perceive the danger to be so great? Barnett studied the front page of The New York Times and found the answer. Page-one coverage of airplane accidents was sixty times greater than reporting on HIV/AIDs; fifteen hundred times greater than auto hazards; and six thousand times greater than cancer, the second leading killer in America after heart disease.

Next, Barnett created a brand-new measurement that captures precisely what people want to know: What are my chances of dying on my next flight? In the aviation safety field, it’s known as Q: death risk per randomly chosen flight. And here’s Barnett’s bottom line: When you get on your next jet airplane, your chance of being killed—your Q—is one in ninety million. That means you could fly every day for the next 250,000 years before you would perish in a crash. No matter how frequently you travel, your risk of death remains the same: one in ninety million. I ask Barnett if his Q research has cured his fear of flying. Not entirely, he laughs, but it definitely helps.

Even if you somehow ended up in a plane crash—a remarkably unlikely if—your chances of dying are unbelievably small. Believe it or not, the survival rate in plane crashes is 95.7 percent. Yes, 95.7. More precisely, the National Transportation Safety Board analyzed all the airplane accidents between 1983 and 2000. Some 53,487 people were involved in those incidents, and 51,207 survived. Hence, the survival rate of 95.7. The safety board judged twenty-six of the accidents to be the worst, meaning that they involved fire, injuries, or substantial damage. Excluding those in which no one had a chance, the survival rate in the most “serious” accidents was 76.6 percent. This means that even in bad crashes, more than three-quarters of the passengers survive. “Contrary to public perception,” the board concluded, “the most likely outcome of an accident is that most of the occupants survived.”

One dangerous consequence of the Myth of Hopelessness is that when people believe there’s nothing they can do to save themselves, they put themselves in even greater peril. Before flying, they pop a few drinks in the bar. As soon as they get on the plane, they take off their shoes, crack open a book, read the paper, or crank up the iPod. They put on their face masks to sleep and ignore the safety briefings and information cards. If the plane crashes, they figure it doesn’t matter if they’re drunk, barefoot, and blindfolded: They’re dead anyway.

Here again, consider the facts. According to the European Transport Safety Council, 40 percent of the fatalities in plane crashes around the world occur in situations that are actually survivable. In other words, out of an average of fifteen hundred total fatalities, some six hundred people die in accidents where they might have lived. The question is: Why? Broadly speaking, the planes are well made—the safety equipment is good—the standards are high. Of course, there are plenty of improvements that would make airplanes even safer (like air bags, three-point safety harnesses, and rear-facing seats). But in survivable crashes, the experts say, it all comes down to human factors and what you do—or don’t do—to save yourself.

Excerpted from The Survivor’s Club by Ben Sherwood (c) 2009 with permission from the publisher, Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group

Ben Sherwood was executive producer of ABC’s Good Morning America and senior broadcast producer of NBC Nightly News . His bestselling novels, The Man Who Ate the 747 and The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud , were published around the world. He also has a web site devoted to survivorship, www.TheSurvivorsClub.org.