How likely are you to survive a plane crash?

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Photo of wreckage and rescue workers at the scene of crash in MexicoImage source, EPA/Handout
Image caption,
The plane that crashed in Mexico's Durango state reportedly lost both of its engines

News that all 103 passengers survived a plane crash in Mexico's Durango state on Tuesday may seem incredible, especially given the dramatic pictures of the smoking wreckage.

Almost all those on board were injured in the accident, but most reportedly walked away from the wreckage with only light injuries.

How unusual is this? Well, surprisingly, it may not be as rare as you'd think.

What are our odds of surviving an accident?

Put simply, there is no clear-cut answer - just as we can't definitively say how survivable car accidents are, because it depends entirely on the circumstances.

But when the US National Transportation Safety Board did a review of national aviation accidents from 1983-1999, it found that more than 95% of aircraft occupants survived accidents, including 55% in the most serious incidents.

Our chances largely depend on factors like the presence of fire, the altitude a mishap takes place at, and its location.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
In 2009, 150 passengers famously survived a plane downing in New York's Hudson River

Flying is statistically less risky than other modes of transport, but that doesn't stop some of us worrying.

It could be because we mostly see dramatic and fatal incidents on the news, or dramatised by Hollywood.

What determines if a crash is survivable?

Tom Farrier, former director of safety at the Air Transport Association, explained on the website Quora that three general conditions help determine whether an accident is survivable:

  • Whether the forces encountered by human occupants are within the limits of human tolerance
  • Whether the structures surrounding them (i.e. the plane) remain substantially intact
  • Whether the post-crash environment presents an immediate threat to occupants or rescuers

In short: how bad any impact was for the body, how much damage was done to the aircraft, and whether the wreckage and environment around it are safe.

In the case of Mexico, the plane crashed shortly after take-off and most of the injured passengers were able to get away before the aircraft caught fire.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
In November 2016, 71 people died on a flight chartered for Brazilian football team Chapecoense. Only six survived - including Jakson Follmann (pictured)

Asked if it was worse to crash on land or sea, aviation consultant Adrian Gjertsen says it has more to do with the proximity of rescue services than the surface.

"For instance, during the incident on the Hudson River, there were rescue services readily available. But if you're in the middle of an ocean there's going to be more of a problem because of simply getting back to dry land," he told the BBC.

"If there was an accident in the Sahara or the middle of the Atlantic - I wouldn't say there's an enormous difference between them really, insomuch as there's no one there to help."

How can we boost our odds?

The internet is full of advice on this topic: wearing your seatbelt, not wearing flammable clothes, and counting the seat rows in advance in case the lights fail.

People also debate where in an aircraft it's safest to sit, and some research suggests crash records show the rear could be marginally safer.

Mr Gjertsen says it is not that simple, and that it all depends on the aircraft and the individual incident.

Media caption,

Air Steward: "No one pays attention to the in-flight demonstration".

"One of the issues that has caused problems is passengers' desire to collect their baggage and depart with it," he says.

"That will prejudice safety - not only of themselves, but everyone else as well.

"It's inevitably human nature that you want to, but if something does go wrong you need to get away from the situation."

"All I can really stress is how safe aviation in general is," Mr Gjertsen says.

"And the idea is to prevent something that you need to survive from happening in the first place."