clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


More people are surviving airplane crashes than dying in them, according to recent figures that reflect an accumulation of improvements in aviation safety.

The latest available breakdown from the International Civil Aviation Organization shows surviving passengers in crashes of scheduled flights outnumbered fatalities 675 to 495 in 1990, and 955 to 817 in the previous year.In Sunday's crash of a USAir Fokker F-28 jetliner at New York's LaGuardia Airport, 24 people survived a fiery disaster that killed 27 others.

The ICAO, a U.N.-chartered agency based in Montreal, said 809 people were killed on scheduled flights in 1983, more than double the 393 survivors.

Other aviation experts, relying on different data, support the findings. "The general picture statistically shows that fatal crashes - crashes in which at least one person is killed - are 50 percent survivable," said John Enders, vice chairman of the Flight Safety Foundation in Rosslyn, Va.

"My gut feeling is that, overall, the percentage of passengers surviving fatal but survivable accidents is rising," concurred Paul Hayes at Air Claims, a private British firm that investigates crashes and compiles data for European insurers.

Aviation specialists attribute the favorable trend to a variety of safety features, such as emergency floor lighting leading to exits and the introduction of stronger, impact-absorbing seats and fire-retardant materials.

They are reluctant, however, to dismiss passenger concerns because the trend line is occasionally broken by terrible accidents.

The worst tend to be midair collisions and explosions because neither the plane nor the human body can survive the impact and flying debris, said John Galipault at the Aviation Safety Institute in Worthington, Ohio.

"Airplanes aren't built to crash into mountains. They're just built to withstand aerodynamic forces," Galipault said.

While midair crashes are the most frightening, they are infrequent. Four-fifths of accidents, including Sunday's crash, occur during take-off or landing.

The big risk there is that people will survive the impact but fail to clear the aircraft in time. Many of the passengers and crew of the ill-fated Fokker F-28 succumbed to fire or the icy waters of Flushing Bay into which the plane plunged.

"The figures traditionally show that, in a survivable accident, 80 percent of the people will live through the impact. But more than 20 percent of the initial survivors die from fire and smoke inhalation," said Matthew McCormick, chief of the survival factors division at the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington.

"The most valuable commodity is time - time to get out of the plane," NTSB spokesman Alan Pollock said.

Regulatory authorities are looking at many features that could give passengers precious extra seconds, such as requiring more exits and installing mist-spraying systems to slow the spread and rise of fire and noxious fumes.

Other proposals under consideration include removing the seats in emergency exit rows to give passengers more room and installing smoke hoods - oxygen-filled bonnets that passengers could pull over their heads to keep from inhaling fumes.

"We have not recommended smoke hoods," said the NTSB's Pollock. "You'd be pulling something over your head, which is a negative feeling . . . and you'd be spending time putting this on instead of using precious seconds to find an exit."

The Federal Aviation Administration is considering requiring commercial aircraft makers to reinforce their fuel tanks and install valves in the fuel lines to prevent leaks.