What can travelers learn from Saturday’s Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International? In a survivable crash, the single imperative is clear: Get out of the plane as fast as you can! That means knowing where the nearest exits are—on both sides of the plane—and leaving your belongings on the plane. Stuff is replaceable; lives are not.
Yes, those tiresome safety demonstrations at the beginning of a flight are extremely repetitive—by now you know all about seat belts and oxygen masks—but at least one factor is unique each time: the best path from your seat to an exit. If a plane is not destroyed by impact, once on the ground, the main hazard is fire. And the only way to beat a fire is to get away from it.
Should you avoid flying on a Boeing 777? Not likely. Even if some mechanical problem is found to be a contributing factor, it will immediately be corrected on all 777s—and on any other planes with similar mechanical systems.
Should you avoid flying Asiana? Again, not likely. If some failure of training turns out to be a contributing factor, training practices will be remedied.
In the developed world, there is no way to predict the next crash. Those “safest airline” reports you sometimes see—based on raw counts of past crashes—are worthless. And recent crashes are useless as a predictor of future crashes. For your next flight, a 777 is just as safe today as it was Friday.
These days, almost all commercial airline crashes in the developed world are one-off events. The way the safety system works is to determine the cause of each crash and immediately require airlines and airports to adopt or install devices or procedures to prevent the identified cause from prompting any future crashes. That system works spectacularly well: Air safety has been phenomenally good for at least a decade. To put it in perspective, the Canadian tank car derailment the same day killed more people than the air crash.
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(vsrivera via flickr/CC Attribution)
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