updated 2/25/2009 5:30:31 PM ET 2009-02-25T22:30:31

Aviation experts say some recent airline accidents with few or no fatalities show that the chances of surviving crashes are better than ever.

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They say fuselages are stronger, fire-retardant technology has been improved and plane crews are better trained to deal with disaster.

"Clearly, this is not just a matter of luck," William Voss, a former Federal Aviation Administration official who is president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., said Wednesday after most passengers and crew survived a jetliner crash in the Netherlands.

Many accidents don't have such outcomes, of course. Just two weeks ago, a commuter airliner crashed while trying to land in Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 people on the plane and a man on the ground.

But authorities say commercial flying is at its safest in a 100-year history.

"Contrary to popular belief, most aircraft crashes are now survivable," said Gideon Ewers, spokesman for the London-based International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations.

Survivable crashes
Experts say most survivable accidents occur at or near airports, generally when a problem occurs during take-off or landing but pilots are able to maintain control, maneuvering to soften the final impact.

On Wednesday, a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 slammed into a muddy field just two miles from the runway at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Most of the 134 people on board survived, with nine people killed. More than 50 suffered injuries.

The 7-year-old airliner is part of Boeing's 737 family of jets, which first entered service 40 years ago. But the 737 has been extensively re-engineered and redesigned since its introduction, and the current version bears little resemblance to the 1960s-era original.

In the case of Flight TK1951, the fuselage broke into three large pieces, cracking along stress lines just ahead of the wings' leading edges and in front of the tail unit.

It was the latest in a series of accidents the past five years that produced surprisingly few fatalities:

  • An Air France Airbus 340 crash-landed at the Toronto airport in 2005. The aircraft was destroyed in the hard landing and ensuing fire, but all passengers and crew escaped unharmed.
  • A British Airways Boeing 777 landed just short of the runway at London's Heathrow Airport on Jan. 17, 2008, after losing power on the final approach. The airframe was destroyed, but no one died.
  • A Continental Airlines Boeing 737-500 veered off a runway Dec. 20, 2008, and slid into a snowy field at the Denver airport, injuring 38 people but causing no fatalities.
  • Last month, all 155 people on board a US Airways Airbus A320 survived a ditching into the Hudson River off New York City's west side after both engines lost power from striking a flock of birds.

"What's notable about all those is that we've seen a number of recent-model aircraft involved in accidents that have been survivable," Voss said.

Engineering advances
Experts cite engineering advances to produce strengthened fuselages that hold together better and improved fire-retardant technologies in cabin seats and furnishings. They also say both cockpit and cabin crews are better trained.

"Decades of lessons have obviously been applied to cabin design and its survivability, and the cabin crews are doing their jobs on evacuation," Voss said.

The advances have limits. Experts say chances of survival remain minimal in cases of in-flight emergencies involving massive structural failure, such as from a bomb explosion, or in instances when a plane is inadvertently flown into a hill or mountain.

Even some emergencies have good outcomes. Last July, an oxygen tank exploded on a Qantas jetliner over the South China Sea, ripping a hole in the floor the size of a small car and causing the plane to fall nearly 20,000 feet. It made an emergency landing and everyone survived.

According to the International Air Transport Association, 502 people died in airliner accidents around the world last year, compared to 692 in 2007. That was despite an increase in the total number of crashes, from 100 to 109, its latest report said.

The association said there was one airliner accident for every 1.2 million flights.

"Safety is the industry's number one priority," Giovanni Bisignani, IATA's director general, said in a statement accompanying the report. "Today's statistics confirm that traveling by air is one the safest things that a person can do."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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