Wings Magazine

Survival rates for plane crashes higher than ever

July 30, 2014, Ottawa - Concerns prompted by the recent spate of fatal airplane mishaps overshadow the overall improvements to airplane safety over the years and the survivability of many crashes, aviation experts say.

July 30, 2014  By CBC News

“There are many improvements in technology to prevent the accident in
the first place," said Rudy Quevedo, director of technical programs of
the Flight Safety Foundation. “And beyond that, if you were to get into
an accident, there have been improvements into the way aircraft have
been built, vulnerability of the interiors — so that all collectively
enhances the chances of survival.”


An oft-cited study conducted by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board in 2001 looking at the survivability
rates from 1983 to 2000 of U.S. air carrier flights found that in the
568 plane accidents during that time period, 95.7 per cent of the
occupants survived. And of the serious accidents (26) involving fire, substantial aircraft damage or complete destruction, 55.6 per cent of the occupants survived.


Although 2014 has been a particularly bad year for airplane
fatalities, last year was considered one of the safest years ever, with 19 aviation accidents  worldwide involving deaths.

"One of the largest factors is the type of accident," Quevedo said. "That, to a great degree, dictates the survivability rate."

Generally, the three most common types of accidents that cause the most fatalities are classified as:

  • Runway excursions. 
  • Controlled flight into terrain.
  • Loss of control in flight. 

The most common, and most survivable, are runway excursions, where the plane departs the surface of the runway either at the end of the runway or off to the side. 

Controlled flight into terrain occurs when a pilot
still has control but the airplane impacts into some kind of terrain,
whether it be land, water or some kind of structure. 

Generally the least common accident, but the type most likely
to be fatal, occurs when the pilot, for whatever reason, completely
loses control of the flight.

The survivability of some crashes often depends on the impact angle 
how steep the plane comes in and hits the terrain — and impact
velocity, said Anthony Brickhouse, associate professor of
applied aviation sciences at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in

"We have designed planes with structures that absorb the energy
and keep the energy away from the occupants for as long as possible,"
he said.

Those crashes deemed to be non-survivable are those where the G-forces are too high and the structure is no longer intact, meaning the airplane just crumples and kills the people inside, Brickhouse said.

Brickhouse noted there's a big misconception about what
happens to an aircraft if it loses power, with many believing that it
will just drop out of the sky.​

"That's just not true," he said. 

Planes are designed to be able to glide a certain distance,
based on various factors, including weather conditions and pilot skill.

Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight
1549, was able to glide his plane to a safe landing in the Hudson River
in 2009 in the so-called "miracle on the Hudson."

A number of changes to aircraft have been made over the past decades that have increased crash survivability.
Structural enhancements to the planes, including changes to seats, have
given passengers a better chance of surviving accidents. 

Twenty years ago, seats were made to withstand nine Gs before
they would break from their moorings.

Now they're made to withstand 16
Gs of force.


Todd Curtis, former Boeing safety engineer and founder of, said all sorts of evolutionary
designs with new aircraft make it less likely people die after a crash.
Some passengers will survive the impact of a crash but die in a
subsequent fire, but fire-resistant materials have become standard in
all aircraft and are less likely to generate noxious fumes. 

Improvement of flight crew training has also made a significant difference, Quevedo said. "Without the actions of the flight attendants, those improvements wouldn't be as effective." 


Flight attendants were praised for their role when Air France Flight
358, carrying more than 300 people on board, ran off the runway of
Toronto's Pearson International Airport and burst into flames in August
2005. No one was killed in that crash.


"That was an outstanding example of aircraft design, procedures and
just the basic understanding on the part of passengers and crew of what
to do in an emergency," Curtis said. 


Emergency response to crashes is also crucial. In 1999, a China
Airline flight carrying more than 300 people on board flipped upside
down and caught fire at Hong Kong International Airport. But the "first
rate" rapid response of the crash fire rescue service, which was on the
scene quickly and able to put down the fire and get everyone out,
resulted in only three passengers killed, a fatality rate extremely low
considering the nature of the crash, Curtis said

"I can cite case after case where had the rescue people not been
there, no one would have survived or there would have been far fewer
survivors," Curtis said.

Accidents also lead to improvements to safety, said James Hall,
a former NTSB chairman. For example, the fatal crash of US Air Flight
427 prompted the redesign of the Boeing 737 rudder; wiring changes to
McDonnell Douglas MD-11​ were implemented after the crash of Swissair Flight 111

"Each one of these tragedies is mined forcefully by the investigators in terms of survivor factors," he said.


Hall said that because many accidents are indeed survivable,
passengers, including frequent flyers, should pay attention to the
routine announcements before takeoff. 

"Those routine announcements, those exits those lights on the
floor, paying attention to the closet exit … that’s life-saving


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