How to Survive an Air Disaster

Southwest Airlines safety demonstrationA Southwest Airlines flight attendant leads a safety demonstration
Robert Firpo-Cappiello

Common-sense strategies for ensuring your safety at 30,000 feet.

In the wake of the uncontained engine failure on Southwest’s flight 1380 earlier this week, we feel a responsibility to remind our audience, in no uncertain terms, that you already know the best way to ensure your safety on a plane: It is vital that you learn how a plane’s oxygen masks work, listen and watch the crew’s safety demonstration, and understand the layout of the plane every time you fly.

Southwest flight 1380 experienced engine failure that appears to have caused pieces of the engine to pierce the exterior of the plane, killing one passenger and injuring others and triggering a decompression that required the flight crew to rapidly descend to an altitude where oxygen was adequate. Of course we hope you’ll never face a situation anywhere near as harrowing as the one that passengers on that flight endured, and Patrick Smith, a Delta pilot and author of Ask the Pilot (askthepilot.com) reminds readers that prior to the tragic events on flight 1380 week, U.S. air carriers had not had a fatality since 2005.

Here, the essential, common-sense steps every flier must take to survive and thrive at 30,000 feet:

PAY ATTENTION TO THE SAFETY DEMONSTRATION

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You think you’ve seen and heard it all before - and the flight crew may even joke a bit about how difficult it is to hold your attention as they demonstrate how to buckle and unbuckle a seatbelt - but the fact is most passengers zone out and miss vital information about the plane’s exits, proper use of oxygen masks, and the importance of wearing seatbelts even when not absolutely required.

LEARN HOW TO USE AN OXYGEN MASK

There’s evidence that most passengers don’t know how to deploy oxygen masks properly, meaning that in a serious emergency, on top of the anxiety of cabin depressurization and the plane descending tens of thousands of feet in a matter of seconds, unprepared passengers find themselves gasping for air. Surprised? Well, do you know how to use a plane’s oxygen mask? The simple solution? Watch the safety demonstration to see how the oxygen mask should cover your face.

WEAR YOUR SEATBELT (EVEN WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TO)

Sure, seatbelts on a plane sometimes seem like an unnecessary pain. You know what else is an unnecessary pain? Getting tossed around by major turbulence or an emergency descent. Wearing your seatbelt even when its not required, especially if you plan to fall asleep for the flight, is always a good idea.

KNOW WHERE THE EXITS ARE LOCATED

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This is simply a matter of listening to the safety demonstration and watching when the crew directs your attention to the exits. Memorizing the exits when you’re relaxed and settling in for your flight is a lot easier than scrambling to figure out where they are during an emergency.

UNDERSTAND THAT DECOMPRESSION IS RARE AND EASILY MANAGED

Movies and TV, urban myth, and frantic social media posts have taught us all to believe the cabin decompression is a disaster on an epic scale. Not so, says Smith in his recent post on Ask the Pilot. “Essentially, the pilots don their oxygen masks and initiate a rapid descent to a safer altitude (normally ten-thousand feet). Passengers, meanwhile, have ample supplemental oxygen if need be. An emergency descent might feel very abrupt, but it will be well within the capabilities of the airplane,” Smith notes.

DON’T LET MEDIA COVERAGE AND ‘PASSENGER ACCOUNTS’ FREAK YOU OUT

Smith also points out that, in the wake of air emergencies, first-hand accounts from passengers via social media and the news media can sometimes be less than reliable. “Claims that the jet was in ‘free fall,’ was ‘diving toward the ground,’ or was in any way out of control are simply untrue,” he reminds readers.

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