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Surviving an airplane crash is more common than ever before

A passenger of Asiana flight 214 arrives at the Incheon Airport in Incheon, west of Seoul Monday, July 8, 2013. Officials investigating a jetliner crash in San Francisco have determined that Asiana Airlines Flight 214 was traveling "significantly below" its target speed as it approached the airport and that the crew tried to abort the landing just before it smashed onto the runway. (AP Photo/Kim Hong-Ji, Pool)

Listen to the latest on the Boeing 777 crash at SFO

Walking away from major airplane crashes like the one in San Francisco is far more common today than it was just a decade ago because airplanes are being built better and with safer materials.

Passengers had a 50-50 chance of dying during a crash in the U.S. between 1962 and 1981. That number fell to 39 percent from 1982 to 2009, and the percentages are getting better today.

Planes are now structurally sounder. They are simply built better and with stronger materials. Deborah Hersman is head of the NTSB. "People think about airplane crashes, and I think they think they are not survivable," she said. "Many of these crashes are survivable. People can walk away."

One of the biggest changes to planes that have increased safety and survivability is the construction of the seats. The rows of seats used to pancake together during a crash, trapping some passengers and killing others. Now they are built to withstand 16 times the force of gravity, and they are held down with stronger bolts.

They are also built with flame retardant materials. So is the carpet, so fires don't spread quickly.

Kevin Hiatt, president of the Flight Safety Foundation told CBS News, "It gives enough time to allow the passengers to get out."

Improved exits are also a key to surviving these catastrophic crashes and so is better training. Flight attendants now train on full scale mock-ups that fill with smoke during training exercises. They are trained to get passengers out within 90 seconds of a crash, even with half the doors and escape slides out of service.

Those changes were mandated after two deadly but survivable crashes in the 1980's. An Air Canada flight landed safely in Cincinnati in 1983 with a small bathroom fire, but half the passengers died because they couldn't avoid the smoke and fire. Fifty-four people died of smoke inhalation in 1985 because they couldn't escape a British Airtours flight experiencing an engine fire.

If you break the numbers down, you were ten times more likely to die in a plane crash just ten years ago than you are today.

There are about two deaths worldwide for every 100 million commercial passengers.

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About the Author

Chris Sullivan is a traffic reporter for KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. He cares deeply about the amount of time you spend sitting in Seattle traffic.


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