What Are the Odds of Surviving a Plane Crash?

Some 40 percent of travelers say they have experienced fear on a flight.

ByABC News
March 12, 2014, 4:41 PM

Mar. 12, 2014— -- If you’re the kind of traveler whose nerves rattle along with the drinks cart every time your flight hits turbulence, you’re probably among the 40 percent of passengers who’ve experienced some fear at one time or another while flying.

But beyond imaging the worst-case scenarios, what are the chances of your plane actually crashing? How likely are you to survive?

The good news is that plane crashes remain extremely rare. Flying is still one of the safest methods of transportation. In fact, air experts say it’s more likely you’ll be involved in a crash driving to the airport than in one midflight.

"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," M.I.T's Sloan School Statistician Arnold Barnett told ABC News.

Around the world, the odds aren’t as good, but travelers would still need on average to take one flight a day for about 10,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash, Barnett said, adding the recent mystery revolving around missing Malaysian Airlines has served to make people more anxious about something that is statistically in our favor.

"This is the fifth day the mystery of Malaysia plane is attracting the headlines and the cumulative effect of this quite naturally makes people nervous,” Barnett said. “If you remind people of something dangerous, it worries them, even if it’s incredibly rare.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s comparison of accidental death risk on its website confirms that air travel featured relatively low among the list of alternative modes of transport. The DTT found Air carriers accounted for just 138 deaths a year among the general population, compared with 36,676 deaths by motor vehicle, 5,150 by large trucks and 3,112 by motorcycle over a five year average.

Actually, you are far more likely to die from poisoning (15,206 deaths a year), at work (5,800) or even being electrocuted (410) than in a plane accident, the agency's research found.

But for those unlucky enough to be involved in the small percent of fatal air accidents, what are the odds of survival if your plane does crash?

The NTSB says that despite more people flying than ever, the accident rate for commercial flights has remained the same for the last two decades, and the survivability rate is a high 95.7 percent.

The European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) has also examined the survivability of aircraft accidents worldwide, estimating that 90 percent are survivable (no passengers died) or “technically survivable," where at least one occupant survives. Most of those fatalities were a result of impact and fire-related factors including smoke inhalation after impact.

The best option to maximize your chances of walking away from a plane crash is to sit up the rear end of the plane, according to crash test results conducted by scientists for Discovery TV last year.

While airplane manufacturer, Boeing, claims on its website that “One seat is as safe as another,” a study by Popular Mechanics, which looked at the survival numbers from every commercial jet crash in the U.S. from 1971, found those sitting near the plane’s tail were 40 percent likelier to survive than those in the first few rows.

Other tips that increase your chance of survival include bracing for impact (placing your head down and putting your hands over your head), while the FAA also advises to sit in an aisle within five rows away from an emergency exit and not to sleep during takeoff and landing, when the chances of a crash is highest.

Boeing also recommends paying attention to flight attendants and dressing appropriately (“skip the short skirts, shorts and skimpy T-shirts”) in the event of an emergency.

"Ultimately, it's highly unlikely you will be in a crash," said Barnett. “Whatever we find out about the Malaysian flight, this sort of thing is extraordinarily rare. You could take a flight every day in an average life span of 70-80 years and never run into trouble."