The sole survivor of Yemenia Flight 626 could barely swim and didn't have a life jacket. When Bahia Bakari's airplane crashed into the stormy Indian Ocean this week, killing 152 other passengers and crew, the 12-year-old girl suddenly found herself in the watery darkness. She could hear the voices of other passengers, but couldn't see anyone, including her mother who perished. For 13 hours, Bahia clung to debris until she was rescued.
Today, the teenager is back in France with her father. She is reportedly doing well with a few cuts and a fractured collarbone. "She is a very, very shy girl," her father Kassim told France's RTL radio. "I would never have thought she would have survived like this. I can't say that it's a miracle, I can say that it is God's will," he said.
What follows are six questions (and answers) raised by the tragedy of Flight 626 and Bahia's remarkable survival story:
1. How Safe is Air Travel?
Air travel is extremely safe, but your exact odds really depend on where you're flying. In a nutshell, jet travel in the US is significantly safer than jet travel in the rest of the world, especially less developed countries, according to Professor Arnold Barnett of MIT, one of the world's foremost experts on aviation safety statistics. Your chance of dying on your next flight in the US is one in 35 million, Barnett calculates. If you're traveling internationally in the industrialized or "first" world (i.e. Europe), your chance of dying is one in 10 million. And if you' re flying in the developing or "third" world (i.e. Africa), your chances are one in two million.
2. Are Some Airlines Safer than Others?
Definitely. According to The Independent of London, you should think carefully before flying Yemenia airlines (and a whole lot of other carriers). "Yemenia's fleet has certainly come in for considerable criticism in the past," says the Independent. "Most damningly, French inspectors who looked at the plane at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris in 2007 noticed a number of faults. The aircraft was banned from flying in French airspace and, under the EC's safety directives, they instructed Yemenia to carry out stricter checks on the place in future. But Yemen's Transport minister, Khaled Ibrahim al-Wazeer, insisted it had since been rigorously checked under the supervision of Airbus experts."
Beyond Yemenia airlines, according to Clive Irving in The Daily Beast, "more than 160 airlines are on (the European Union) black list, meaning that they are not allowed to fly into or out of E.U. countries." Irving notes the list includes "air carriers registered in Kazakhstan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Angola, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo -- you get the picture. More significantly, it also includes all carriers 'certified by the authorities with responsibility for regulatory oversight' in Indonesia, which is hardly a Third World country, but which has a record of sloppy enforcement of safety standards."
3. Is it safe to fly on an Airbus?
Yemenia Flight 626 was the second Airbus to crash into the sea this month. An Air France Airbus A330-200 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, killing all 228 people on board.
Over all, Airbus planes are very safe to fly. And there's is no reason to believe the two recent Airbus crashes are connected. Indeed, the crashes involved different Airbus models flying in very different situations.
4. How often do plane crashes have only one survivor?
Including the Yemenia crash, there have been 13 airliner crashes since 1970 with a sole survivor, according to CNN and data compiled by Dr. Todd Curtis, director of the Airsafe.com Foundation. Five of those survivors were minors and four were crew members, accounting for 75 percent of the total.
"I can't figure out for the life of me why crew members and children tend to be disproportionate in these sole-survivor events," Curtis says.
One of the most extraordinary sole survivor stories involves Julianne Koepcke, a 17-year-old who was flying in South America on Christmas Eve 1971. Her Lockheed turboprop encountered a lightning storm that destroyed one of the wings. Koepcke fell more than two miles into the Amazon jungle but survived with only minor injuries. Ninety-one other people aboard Flight 508 died. Today, Koepcke is a zoology librarian in Munich. She tells CNN the experience still haunts her, especially after tragedies like Air France 447 that crashed off the coast of Brazil. "It just horrifies me," she says. "I only hope it all went quickly for those on board."
5. Which is the safest seat on an airplane?
There's quite a bit of contradictory evidence about which is the safest seat on an airplane. Some data suggests that sitting toward the front of the plane is safest. Some evidence suggests sitting toward the back is safer. Indeed, Popular Mechanics reviewed 20 airplane crashes and concluded: "Passengers near the tail of a plane are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the first few rows up front."
Many aviation experts dispute front vs. back distinctions, arguing that every crash is different.
So what should you do to improve your chances? Follow the Five Row Rule, says Professor Ed Galea of the University of Greenwich in London who has studied more than 100 plane crashes and their seating charts. He has also interviewed thousands of survivors and flight crew. After examining all the data, he recommends sitting within five rows of any exit. The closer you sit to any exit -- front, middle or back -- the better your chances of escaping in a survivable crash, Galea says. Aisle seats are marginally safer than middle or window seats because they afford more mobility and choices.
6. Is the accident rate going up?
The Wall Street Journal compiles the latest statistics: "According to aircraft tracking and consulting firm Ascend, the Yemenia crash is the fifth fatal passenger airline accident worldwide this year. In addition to Colgan's Continental Express flight and the Air France A330 crash, there were two other fatal airline accidents, both in February. One in Brazil claimed 22 lives and a Boeing 737 accident in Holland killed five people."
The Journal continues: "Measured in terms of total hull losses -- planes that end up totaled after an accident -- this year is on par with the past five years, according to Ascend. So far this year, there have been 11 Western-built planes damaged beyond repair in accidents, including the US Airways flight in the Hudson River. (Hull losses also include cargo carriers, so the FedEx MD-11 accident in Tokyo that killed a crew of two is included.)"