The sole survivor of the Afriqiyah Airways plane crash in Libya on Wednesday is a 10-year-old Dutch boy. Incredibly, this is not the only example of a crash in which everyone but a minor perished. A 12-year-old Parisian girl was the only person to survive a 2009 air crash in the Indian Ocean. When a jetliner crashed over Sudan in 2003, only a 3-year-old boy survived. Are children more likely to survive plane crashes than adults?
Probably not. Sixteen crashes since 1970 have yielded just one survivor—including the crash in Libya. In fully half of these cases, the survivors were minors, according to data compiled by the Airsafe.com Foundation. That may seem like a lot, but with such a small sample size, the number is statistically insignificant. And while the National Transportation Safety Board has found that 95.7 percent of people involved in plane crashes survive—yes, the survival rate is that high—it doesn’t break the numbers down by age.
What little data we do have on age and crash-survival comes from a study of plane-evacuation behavior conducted by the FAA in 2002. The agency timed how long it took people to exit an airplane simulator and correlated that data with their physical characteristics as well as various seating and aisle configurations. It found that slender young men exit fastest, while older women with greater waist size tended to be slower. The study did not include minors. Furthermore, these numbers pertain mainly to “survivable crashes” that lead to evacuations—a plane that spins out of control on the runway and catches fire, for example. With high-fatality accidents like a plane nose diving into the Atlantic Ocean, the biggest survival factor is luck.
Other factors do influence the likelihood of surviving a crash. One is seating. A study of survivable plane crashes in recent decades conducted by Popular Mechanics found that people sitting toward the back of the plane were more likely to survive than those sitting toward the front. A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Greenwich determined that what matters most is how close you are to an exit row. Sit within five rows of an exit, and you’ve got better-than-even chances of surviving. Sit six rows or more away, and your odds are less than 50-50.
Most important, though, is awareness. The FAA has found that between 35 percent and 40 percent of the difference in evacuation times can be attributed to preparedness. Passengers who pay attention to the flight instructions, know where the nearest exits are, and think through the emergency procedures are most likely to escape unharmed. Other recommendations for surviving a plane crash include wearing a seat belt, learning the “brace position,” and staying alert during the first three minutes and the last eight minutes of flight, during which 80 percent of crashes occur. And of course, don’t fly with airlines that are the most likely to crash.
Explainer thanks Roland Herwig of the Federal Aviation Administration and Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life.