Rethinking Flight Safety With Air Bags In Planes Even in major airplane mishaps — like planes running off runways or landing on the Hudson River — passengers can walk away unharmed if they're properly protected, safety experts say. Air bags, standard in autos for decades, are now beginning to make their way into airliners as well.
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Rethinking Flight Safety With Air Bags In Planes

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Rethinking Flight Safety With Air Bags In Planes

Rethinking Flight Safety With Air Bags In Planes

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Now that air bags are widely accepted in cars they're about to make their way onto airplanes. Several airlines have begun outfitting some of their seats to comply with an FAA rule that takes full effect today. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG: There was a time - maybe 25 years ago - when the idea of putting air bags in planes would have been seen as pointless. For decades, aviation safety focused mainly on avoiding accidents - on the theory that if a crash occurred, nobody could survive anyway.

But more recently, safety experts have discovered that even in major mishaps -like planes running off runways or landing in the Hudson River - passengers can walk away unharmed if they're properly protected. And that's where air bags can help.

Mr. TOM BARTH (Research director, AmSafe): So here's a typical air bag assembly.

HOCHBERG: Tom Barth is research director of a company called AmSafe. It makes most of the seatbelts used on planes; and increasingly, it's been selling belts with air bags attached. At this factory in Phoenix, workers put them together.

(Soundbite of machine whirring)

They load a deflated air bag into a narrow pouch on top of the belt, and connect it to a trigger mechanism and helium-filled inflation device that will be hidden under the seat.

Mr. BARTH: The air bag seatbelt looks pretty much like a standard seatbelt, so the person using it uses it like any other belt. And then on top of the seatbelts you have the air bag sewn onto the webbing and covered with a decorative cover. People don't really notice that it's there.

HOCHBERG: AmSafe now is supplying the product to most major U.S. airlines to help comply with a new government crash standard. The rule's been phased in slowly over the past 21 years and takes full effect this week when the seats in newly manufactured planes will have to protect passengers from a crash 16 times the force of gravity. That's roughly what you might experience in a moderate speed head-on car wreck.

John Hickey, at the Federal Aviation Administration, says the new standard is an improvement over the former requirement of nine-times-gravity force, which he says didn't provide adequate protection.

Mr. JOHN HICKEY (Federal Aviation Administration): We were seeing accidents that, sure, some of them were terrible catastrophes and there was never going to be a survivor. But many of the accidents were of the nature that people were still in their seat, and if maybe it was a little bit stronger that person could have survived.

HOCHBERG: Hickey says air bags are just one of several methods airlines can use to comply with the rule, and only a few seats on a typical plane would need them. They're unnecessary, for instance, in most of the coach cabin, because airlines are installing sturdier seat-backs. In a collision those seat-backs serve as an adequate cushion.

Other seats, in especially spacious configurations, comply with the standard simply because there's nothing in front of them a belted passenger could hit. But where the bags often are used is in places like the bulkhead - the wall at the front of the cabin - where a crash could throw passengers into a hard surface.

Mr. BILL HAGAN (Executive Vice President, AmSafe): We'll do this crash test and a whole series of things will happen.

HOCHBERG: Back at AmSafe, executive vice president Bill Hagan leads us to a long, narrow room where two crash-test dummies sit in a mock-up of an airplane cabin. The dummies hit the bulkhead at a force of 16 Gs. Then Hagan assesses the results.

Mr. HAGAN: The occupant in the right-hand seat was wearing just a regular two-point seatbelt. And if you look at the bulkhead in front of him, you can see a tan mark where his head struck and skidded on the bulkhead. So that's just not survivable. And the occupant on the left has the seatbelt air bag, and never touched the bulkhead.

HOCHBERG: Hagan says about one percent of the world's commercial aircraft seats now are equipped with air bags, a number he says will increase as airlines replace older planes. Each of the devices costs about $1,200, compared with just $35 for a standard seatbelt.

But Hagan argues they're worth the price. Though an air bag never has deployed on a commercial flight, he says several have gone off in private plane crashes and he credits them for saving 14 lives.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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