AmSafe touts airbag seatbelts for airliners and business aircraft

 - August 31, 2009, 6:01 AM

After successfully developing the market for airbag inflatable seatbelts in new and existing light aircraft, Phoenix Ariz.-based AmSafe Aviation is targeting growth in the airline market and also trying to persuade business jet owners of the safety benefits offered by airbag seatbelts.

Driving the push on the commercial side are FAA requirements that all seats in newly delivered airliners meet the so-called 16-g dynamic seat testing rules. Previously these rules applied only to newly type-certified aircraft, but now a vast new market is opening for AmSafe, which can help aircraft and seat manufacturers meet the 16-g requirements.

“That’s a pretty big change on the commercial side,” said Bill Hagan, president of AmSafe Aviation. “We’re seeing a big step up in airbag deliveries.” AmSafe is currently working on 25 new installation projects for airlines that don’t already use airbags. Where airbags come in handy for airlines is on problem seats, those that are hard to certify to 16-g standards because they are near solid interior fixtures. According to Hagan, in normal seat rows, the seat in front of a passenger helps mitigate the force of an impact by folding over in a controlled fashion. For the problem seats, the only solution is to restrict the seat pitch (making the seat much more uncomfortable) or to install an airbag seatbelt, he said.

The proliferation of pod-like business- and first-class airline seating presents a new problem: lots of solid objects that can damage human heads during a survivable accident. Seatbelt airbags, Hagan said, “have enabled a whole new class of seat.”

AmSafe has successfully penetrated the light aircraft market with a number of original-equipment installations in new aircraft ranging from Cessna 172s to Cirruses and Pipers. There are more than 17,000 AmSafe seatbelt airbags flying on light aircraft, some installed on new aircraft and many as retrofits. More than 80 percent of new light aircraft come with airbag seatbelts as standard, Hagan said. And airbag seatbelts have saved nearly a dozen people in aircraft accidents thus far, he added.

Now AmSafe is targeting the business jet market, not just for seats such as divans that have particular head-strike-zone problems, but to make any seat safer in a survivable accident. With business jets, however, the buyer of the airplane must make the decision to add airbag seatbelts because seats are typically highly customized. And while manufacturers are happy to help buyers select airbags, unless the completions center mentions them as an option, the owner might not be aware of the safety benefits offered by airbags. Hagan emphasized that most accidents are survivable and that there is a technology–seatbelt airbags–that enhances safety, but it’s difficult to deliver that message to the buyer of a new jet. “We’ve not been successful reaching and educating the people who fly in back of those airplanes, people you would expect would want to have everything state of the art,” he said.

Seatbelt airbags add about $1,200 to $1,500 to the cost of each seat. “On a jet, that’s nothing,” Hagan said, especially when taking into account the cost of frills like gold-plated seatbelt hardware and fixtures.

While it would be much less expensive simply to add a shoulder harness to a business jet or airliner seat, that doesn’t always provide the best solution, according to Hagan. “There are a lot of technical problems with shoulder harnesses,” he explained. A shoulder harness couples the occupant’s torso to the top of the seat. This creates a long lever from the top of the seat to the floor, which during an accident can impose a huge load on the seat. To counteract this, the seat would have to be much stronger, as would the seat-to-floor attachments. A two-point lap-belt system with an airbag is a better solution, he said, because “it couples and puts loads into the seats through the seat belt anchors and doesn’t change the load profile.”

In the two-point belt, the airbag deploys in a way that controls the movement of the person’s upper torso. During the deceleration in an accident, the torso rides into the airbag and slowly decelerates instead of whipping violently. “The safety enhancement of the product has been proved with real-world data,” Hagan said.