How to Stay Safe on a Plane

A new report quantifies the injuries most frequently incurred during air travel—we report the airplane-safety basics that help you avoid getting bumped.

December 14, 2009

Stow it: Keep heavy objects under the seat in front of you to avoid a hard knock.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Plane travel can be a jumbo-jet-sized hassle, especially during the fly-happy holiday season. But a new study just published in the journal Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine illustrates that air travel not only has its ups and down, it also can leave you battered and bruised. (Especially if global warming is making air turbulence more common.) Take some basic airplane safety precautions, though, and you're less likely to get injured.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and Columbia University in New York City used what's called the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, which contains information for about 20 percent of all hospital admissions in the U.S. each year, to identify patients who were hospitalized for aviation-related injuries from 2000 to 2005. They found that flying-related injuries account for about 1,000 hospital admissions and about 750 deaths every year. About a third of those injured are hurt while flying in private aircraft, and another 29 percent are hurt or killed while parachuting. (By far the most common injury: a broken leg.)

WHAT IT MEANS: Airplane travel, while often touted as safer than motoring, isn't without its risks. And while worries about crashes are probably the biggest fear for those who dread plane travel, that's not the only way to get hurt. "Undoubtedly, the most common causes of aviation-related injuries are crashes," notes lead author Susan P. Baker, MPH, a professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. "But injuries do occur in the absence of crashes, and those are most commonly due to falls or jostling due to turbulence, and falls on aircraft stairs."

Here's how to fly safely this holiday season:

• Stow your computer or other heavy items under the seat in front of you. What you want to avoid is a serious bonk on the head in the event that your plane hits turbulence and the overhead bins spring open, says Baker. And it's your own stuff that's likely to be closest to you.

• Always keep your seatbelt fastened, unless you need to use the restroom. Ignore that "seatbelts" light and just stay belted. "You're far less likely to get injured when a plane encounters turbulence if you're in your seat and restrained," says Baker.

• Wear long pants—made out of cotton. Synthetic fabrics melt when exposed to heat. In the event of a crash, nylon stockings and other synthetics will melt to your skin and cause serious burns, says Baker. Instead, wear cotton long pants and a cotton long-sleeved shirt when you travel, to give yourself an extra layer of protection between you and your environment.

• Check your Manolos. Women should wear low-heeled shoes when flying, so they're as stable as possible when boarding and leaving the plane and when moving around midflight, says Baker. A trip down the stairs while deplaning will not earn you extra frequent-flier miles.

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