Flight Safety – Part 1

This week our CEO and Founder shares his personal experience of an aircraft emergency and reveals some interesting facts.

Back in 1999 I was on a flight from Bogota, Colombia when it quite literally fell out of the sky. Fortunately for me and everyone else on board, the aircraft was at an altitude of 2,500 feet and we only dropped 300 feet before the pilot regained control, leaving a safety margin of a good 2,200 feet. The experience was surreal in so many ways, not least of all it being the first (and only) time I have experienced zero gravity.

I was sat in the smoking section of the plane and the first thing I noticed when we hit the air pocket was that the ashtrays in the seat arms popped out and were floating at about eye level. The hair of the woman a few seats in front of me was extended above her head  a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label floated past my seat. The scene was eerily silent for a while and then the plane re-equalised and pandemonium broke out. It seemed that everyone was screaming and shouting and the panic in the cabin was tangible. Even the cabin crew were frozen in their seats and looking very pale.

Within 10 minutes we were on the ground and despite the shock of the event it did pose a question. Where are the safest seats on an aircraft? If you listen to Boeing they will tell you that “one seat is as safe as another.” However, this is not borne out by research carried out by Popular Mechanics Magazine, which has taken data from every commercial air crash in the US since 1971. This research clearly shows that sitting at the back of a plane is safer than the mid-section and certainly safer than the front of the aircraft.

In fact survival rates in the first and business class cabins is only 49% compared to 56% in the sections forward and over the wings. But by far the safest area is the back of the plane, where survival rates rise to 69%.

However, it’s not just about surviving a crash. I always used to try and get the window seat in an emergency exit row above the wing, believing this not only gave me the best chance of survival, but also provided a welcome bit of extra legroom. That’s fine until you take into account that the wings of an aircraft are full of highly combustible fuel. Add to that, when planes are hijacked the hijackers often occupy the emergency exit rows and stand in the open doorways when the plane is on the ground to keep and eye out for security forces approaching the aircraft. They are also not adverse to putting a gun to the head of the nearest passenger to emphasise their point. Personally, I would rather not have the extra legroom in these circumstances.

It is widely recognised that your chances of survival reduce the further you get away from an emergency exit and decrease dramatically if you are more than 5 rows away from an exit. Thick smoke and fire are major hazards during crashes, so it’s always wise to count the number of rows between you and the nearest exit as soon as you get on the aircraft. If there is smoke, make sure you crawl to the exit and stay as low as you can.

In an era when you can often pre-book seats online and with so many of us travelling by air, any edge in surviving a crash has got to be worth investigating. Airlines spent a lot of time telling us to wear our seat belts and how to fasten and release them. There’s a good reason for this. In crashes where there is a lot of panic, people revert to learnt behaviour and this usually means that they actually go through the process of trying to undo the seat belt in their car and not the aircraft they are actually on. This has often been the difference between those who make it off the aircraft in a fire and those who don’t.

My experience in 1999 taught me that despite advances in technology and safety, we are still very vulnerable when we fly and anything not strapped down floats and then crashes with tremendous force to the floor of the cabin. This includes the passengers.

Whenever I travel first or business class I try to reconcile the fact that I am statistically in the least safe area of the aircraft by gaining solace in the fact that if it all goes wrong, at least I will be comfortable.

Next time Lloyd discovers what you need know when an aircraft goes down…………..