AIN Blog: Torqued: There’s More Work To Be Done To Ensure Cabin Safety

 - October 2, 2011, 11:45 AM

When I look at the Caribbean Airlines 737-800 that slid off a rain-soaked runway on July 30 at Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan Airport outside Georgetown, without any fatalities and with only relatively minor injuries, I have two immediate reactions. The first is disappointment that we still have not gotten a handle on preventing runway excursions, the leading cause of accidents these days for commercial and corporate aviation. While mechanical problems are to blame occasionally, most often it is human factors in the cockpit that cause pilots to land long or too fast (or both) for the weather conditions at the airport. Whether it’s fatigue, inattention or lack of training or any combination of these factors, these human factors are also difficult to eliminate.

While we have to work continuously on human factors to improve aviation safety, we also have to continue to improve the aircraft themselves so they are more forgiving of inevitable human error. And, yes, as close as we can come to mitigating and minimizing human error, it will remain inevitable and unpredictable as long as humans pilot aircraft. That brings me to my second reaction to seeing the 737-800 skid through a fence and break apart with no fatalities: kudos to the aviation industry for tackling cabin safety and the unglamorous but oh-so-important role of seats. 

Seat Changes Improve Survivability
By improving seat design and strength, engineers have made airplanes safer in the event of the rapid deceleration common to runway excursions. Engineers–like flight attendants, mechanics and other non-pilots–are among the unsung heroes of aviation, rarely getting the recognition they deserve for making flying the safest mode of transportation. Cabin safety is just one small but significant area where engineers have quietly persevered. Their efforts have made a remarkable difference in survivability in accidents that we used to call “survivable,” even when, in fact, they weren’t. These recent fatality-free accidents are a testament to the importance of their work and how small changes can have huge consequences.

It was not all that long ago that an aircraft rapidly decelerating in the pilots’ frantic attempts to stop after landing long or too fast or (usually) both on a slippery runway would result in fatalities–often from the seats breaking loose from the floor tracks. Passengers dutifully strapped into their seats would go hurtling about the cabin when the seats they were belted into would break away from their moorings. Catastrophic injuries would often result.

One of the first accidents I was familiar with involved just such a scenario. I was working for Allegheny Airlines (which ultimately merged into USAir, which more recently became US Airways) when it merged with Mohawk Airlines. The merger was about to take place when we got word that a Mohawk Fairchild FH-227 twin turboprop had crashed on approach to Albany Airport one snowy night in March 1972. The flight had departed New York’s La Guardia Airport earlier that evening with three crewmembers and 44 passengers. Although the aircraft hit a house, the fuselage remained relatively intact and there was no fire. Yet, 18 people died. Reports from those on the scene indicated that many of the passengers who died were stacked up like cord wood inside the aircraft. The reason: the seats had come loose from the floorboards and sent the passengers hurtling forward against the hard surfaces of the fuselage. Many of us at the time believed that there would have been fewer fatalities if the seats had not given way.

Many people are not aware that the 1989 DC-10 crash in Sioux City, Iowa was also a survivable accident for some of the unlucky occupants who died, not from the accident itself, but from their seats breaking loose and crushing them. And of course this is the accident that began what has been a decades-long fight to require the FAA to mandate proper child restraints for children under the age of two. More on that later.

So what has made the biggest difference in accident survivability? Better, stronger seats: the so-called 16G seats, which can withstand 16 times the force of gravity. The life-saving 16G seats will be mandated by the FAA for new aircraft this year, and many airlines have opted to retrofit their aircraft with them since they are lighter than the older models and thus save fuel. 

These seats have proved more than worth their weight in at least two accidents besides the Caribbean Airlines crash in July. The eerily similar runway excursion by an American Airlines 737-800 on Dec. 23, 2009, at Norman Manley Airport in Kingston, Jamaica, also resulted in no fatalities. Without the seats breaking apart or tearing loose from the floorboards, a survivable accident remained just that. And the Air France Airbus A340 seats are also credited with saving lives after Flight 358 careened into a ravine at Toronto Pearson Airport on Aug. 2, 2005, during a thunderstorm.

While so much has been done to improve cabin safety more can and should be done. Focusing on just seats, I would once again implore the airlines to do what the FAA callously (what else can you call it?) refuses to do: mandate child safety seats for infants under the age of two. 

Just as airlines found it in their economic interest to transition to newer, more secure seats ahead of the FAA’s mandate, they should find it in their economic interests to do the same for their most vulnerable passengers. Use free kid’s seats for children under two as an advertising gimmick; limit the offer–if you really must–to certain family-friendly flights, but just do it! 

And for corporate jet owners, operators and future purchasers, know that sideways couches may be all the rage, but they are not the safest place for passengers to sit on landing and on takeoff. G forces in an accident for passengers sitting sideways on these couches have caused and will continue to cause severe and even fatal neck injuries. The only safe way to sit on any aircraft is facing forward or, better still, facing backward.