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Experts: More people surviving plane crashes

Four recent major airline accidents have something in common: Everyone survived.
APTOPIX Plane in River
Airline passengers wait to be rescued on the wings of a US Airways Airbus 320 jetliner that safely ditched in the frigid waters of the Hudson River in New York on Thursday. All 155 people on board survived. Steven Day / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Four recent major airline accidents have something in common: Everyone survived.

It is part of a hard-to-quantify trend of people surviving crashes that used to be fatal, aviation safety experts said Thursday after everybody was rescued from a US Airways jet that ditched in the Hudson River.

Part of the reason is luck, but much of it is due to better crew reaction and training and sturdier planes, said experts at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"What's amazing to me is the last few we've had, everybody's escaped," said Eric Doten, a former Federal Aviation Administration senior official and retired professor of safety at Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach. "We've worked on survivability."

Besides Thursday's harrowing crash in New York, everyone got out of a Continental Airlines jet that skidded off the runway and then caught fire in Denver last month. A year ago, everyone escaped after a British Airways 777 crash-landed short of its runway in London.

And in July, a Qantas jetliner fell nearly 20,000 feet over the South China Sea, when an oxygen tank exploded and ripped a hole in the floor the size of a small car. It made an emergency landing and everyone survived

The United States hasn't had a major airliner fatality for two years straight, part of an overall trend of fewer major airline deaths. The last major U.S. airliner crash with many fatalities was Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner mistakenly took off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky.

Even with that last fatal accident, fewer than 100 passengers have died in U.S. major airliner accidents in the past seven years combined, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

"It's much more heartening what happened today than unnerving," said MIT statistics professor Arnold Barnett, who studies airline fatalities. "The emergencies are becoming rarer and rarer and the observed survival rate given the emergency" are going up.

Everything from manufacturing to maintenance to the crew has improved to make crashes fewer and more survivable, said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the airline industry's Air Transport Association.

"And you have seen that bear itself out" in recent accidents, he said.

Seats are stronger and hardware is better, but the key is how the flight attendants and pilots respond, said Bill Waldock, who teaches a course in crash worthiness at Embry-Riddle in Prescott, Ariz.

"People forget flight attendants are on board for one reason — that's to get people to safety as soon as possible," he said.

A quick evacuation may have prevented fatalities both in New York and Denver, he said. He cited improvements in crew training prompted by major fatal accidents.

"We kind of learned the hard way that it is critical to control what happens" in evacuation, he said.

'Deadstick' landing
One reason flight attendants are doing better might be because they are older and more senior than they used to be because few airlines have hired new people since Sept. 11, 2001, said Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants. As flight attendants get more training each year, "their confidence is easily translated into successful evacuations," she said.

And the pilots in the New York accident not only had the luck for the accident to occur at the right time, but they also had the skill to pull off a good water landing, Waldock said.

Landing in a river instead of the open ocean or the city is "almost the best case" scenario for a "deadstick" landing, Waldock said.

Barnett said: "It has to be one of the most extraordinary water landings in aviation history."