Why flying is safer now

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Contrary to popular belief, most airline accidents are now survivable.

While people used words like "miraculous" to describe the fact that everyone got out alive of the Air France jet that crashed upon landing in Toronto this week, aviation experts are also crediting 20 years of advances in technology, training, and safety practices.

From improved fire retardants in the cabin to slow the spread of flames and smoke so people can be evacuated to "phenomenal" weather tracking devices that can alert crews to wind shear and violent storm cells, the combined efforts of the federal government and the aviation community have made flying far safer than ever before.

Recommended: How safe is flying? Take the aviation safety quiz

Twenty years ago, the chances of surviving a crash were indeed minimal. While the accident rate has declined only slightly since then, the seriousness of the those crashes has declined significantly.

A recent study by the National Transportation Safety Board found that of the serious commercial airline accidents that were deemed "survivable," more than three-quarters of the passengers walked out alive.

"The good news is that catastrophic crashes are happening less and less," says aviation expert Darryl Jenkins. "Planes are now made so well and pilots and crews are trained so well, a lot of things that were very problematic with airline safety are now things of the past."

Canadian investigators are examining the Airbus 340's black boxes to determine the cause of this week's crash. While none would jump to conclusions, several pilots with experience in accident investigations say they believe investigators may focus on water on the runway.

"Hydroplaning is a very significant factor," says Capt. Steve Luckey, a retired commercial airline pilot and accident investigator. "At high speeds on wet tarmac the tires aren't touching the concrete - they're basically water-skiing and with respect to that, you lose control."

The ability of the crew to maintain control and evacuate everyone with minimal injury is evidence that advances in plane design and crew training is working, he says. Despite airline financial woes training has not been sacrificed.

In fact, training remains as rigorous as ever. For pilots, most of it is done in computerized flight simulators. "[The simulator's] actually a better training device because you can simulate conditions like high winds that you certainly wouldn't want to fly the airplane in," says Luckey. "The training is better than it's actually ever been."

And that's true for the flight attendants as well, say experts. In Oklahoma City, the Federal Aviation Administration has a facility known as the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI), which researches ways to improve airline safety.

The researchers study things like how wide the exit aisle should be, the best way for passengers to sit in during an emergency, and how best to exit a smoke-filled cabin. Four times a year, flight attendant trainers head to Oklahoma City to train with CAMI researchers.

"They get hands-on experience using the evacuation slide, we have theatrical smoke that we pump into our simulator so they can experience the disorientation that comes with that," says Cynthia Corbett, human factors specialist at CAMI.

Such training allows the flight attendants to direct passengers in the safest way to behave in emergencies. Indeed, one pilot makes sure that her passengers know that the flight attendants are not "cocktail waitresses."

"Their primary job is to be a first responder, and they will be the ones to save your lives if there's a problem," says the pilot, who's not authorized to speak to the press.

Safety experts also say that since most crashes are now survivable, it behooves passengers to be prepared. Knowing exactly where the exits are can make a critical difference. "Flying is safer than it's ever been, but safety is a never-ending task," says Stuart Matthews, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va. "If nothing else, this accident may encourage people to read the safety card."

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