Children in Plane Crashes

I’ve heard from a few people today who are wondering what to make of the child survivor of the Yemeni plane crash in the Indian Ocean.

It’s not yet clear how old the child is (early reports said the child was 5—and male; more recent reports point to a 14-year-old girl), and

This child is now said to be a 14-year-old girl, but we know little else at the moment. Still, it seems like a good excuse to talk about how children fare in plane crashes in general.

The answer: not well, alas. But before we even go there, a quick reality check: Children are hardly ever in plane crashes, it’s worth remembering. Car crashes are what we should be talking about night and day. Among those 2-12 years old, car-crash injuries are the leading cause of death. Each year about 1,800 children aged 14 and under are killed in cars, and more than 280,000 are injured. Let me say again: 1,800 children.

So we’re way off in the far reaches of low-risk/high-fear land here. But OK, let’s do this. So hardly any kids are ever killed in plane crashes. But what to make of the Yemeni crash? If it is true that the sole survivor was a child, does that mean children may be better off in some plane crashes?

No. In general, children—especially small children—are at special risk in a lot of accidents, including plane crashes. They may need extra help to escape, and they may be more prone to secondary complications (as are older people). They may not understand the safety instructions (like many grown ups) and they are accustomed to being told what to do—always dangerous in a plane crash.

We don’t know what happened in the Indian Ocean, but it’s a safe bet that the most important factor was luck. The survivor’s seat may have been located in just the right spot. But not even that can be predicted. What is the safest part of the plane in a water crash? I asked Dr. Dan Johnson, an aviation safety expert who wrote the highly readable book, Just in Case: A Passenger’s Guide to Airplane Safety and Survival. And he gave me the secret. Are you ready? “Sometime the overwing is safer, but sometime the back of the plane is safer, and other times the front is safer.” That pretty much sums it up. There’s no way to know, because it depends on the crash. In general, being closer to the exit is better, but there’s no telling which exit (until it’s too late).

But here’s one thing we do know about very small children in planes: they are safer if they are strapped in. Seems obvious, and yet you are still allowed to hold a child under 2 on your lap on planes. The research shows that there is no way you will be able to hold onto that child in a crash or sudden deceleration, but you can still try. And given the price of seats, I can see why this is still allowed. But parents should know that it is not nearly as safe as having the child in a car seat—in a separate seat.

In 1995, a mother held fast to her 9-month-old during a crash landing in Charlotte, NC, but she physically could not compete with the G-forces of the violent landing. Her child went flying out of her arms and died of massive head trauma. The mother lived. After that, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all children be restrained, no matter their age. The FAA objected with an interesting line of reasoning, according to a 1995 New York Times article:

“The agency contends that if families have to buy tickets for babies, some will drive instead and as a result more will die. The agency maintains that the problem of child safety in aviation barely exists; for a 15-year period beginning in 1978, a study the agency commissioned found, only one child death would have been prevented, along with one serious injury and three to six minor injuries in aviation accidents involving United States air carriers.”

Of course, if we are worried about plane tickets being so expensive that they force people to drive…well, the FAA should’ve gotten into the price-fixing business a long time ago. The debate over lap-babies has continued, but the bottom line is clear: it’s safer to have your kid in a seat of his or her own, and in a seat belt.

But if you really want to protect your child, nevermind all that: Put your kid in the back seat of your car when you’re driving to the airport. Buckle everyone’s seat belts and turn off your cell phone. Now we’re getting somewhere.