The remarkable safety record of airline travel over the past decade has a bizarre tendency to justify passenger inattention before takeoff when flight attendants go through the list of procedures to follow in emergency situations. We look out the window, immerse ourselves in reading material or daydream. Anything not to listen to that boring list of do's and don'ts for the umpteenth time.
The crash landing of an Asiana Airlines jumbo jet at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday serves as a reminder why it's a supremely bad idea to assume that such accidents won't happen to you and, therefore, it's OK to ignore those safety instructions. Everything on that 11-hour flight from South Korea seemed to go normally until about seven seconds before the plane hit the ground. At that moment, though, few things mattered more to the survival of the flight's 307 passengers and crew than those emergency procedures.
Upon initial impact, the tail assembly broke away from the plane as it hurtled down the runway. Inside, there was screaming and panic. Sparks, perhaps from exposed electrical wiring, showered the fuselage. It was only a matter of seconds -- not minutes, seconds -- before those sparks would ignite fuel and flammable material and begin consuming the plane with flames.
Miraculously, all but two passengers survived, and questions remain whether one of those deaths was caused by emergency vehicles on the ground and not by the crash itself. Yes, there were scores of injuries, but 123 passengers walked away from the wreckage on their own.
This crash follows another potentially catastrophic passenger airliner accident, in 2009, when a U.S. Airways flight taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport made a successful emergency landing on the Hudson River. Not a single passenger died, due largely to the pilot's skill at landing on water but also because emergency evacuation procedures worked exactly as they were designed.
Both cases are a tribute to crew members and passengers who, no doubt, overcame a sense of terror and followed procedures. It's also a tribute to better airliner design and construction. Stronger seat designs and anchoring methods help them serve as a protective shell for passengers. Structural changes are making fuselages more durable, and increased use of flame-retardant materials gives crew and passengers those crucial extra seconds to evacuate.
And the bulk of the crew members' training is not to ensure you receive adequate pretzels and soft drinks. They are drilled in multiple emergency scenarios to ensure that a maximum number of passengers survive in those rare times of real crisis.
Still not convinced that those emergency procedures are worth listening to? We know of 305 people in San Francisco who would probably be happy to change your mind.