Surviving Crashes: How Airlines Prepare for the Worst

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Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/United Photos/Reuters

A passenger walks away from a Turkish Airlines plane that crashed while attempting to land at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport

We tend to think of airplane crashes as fatal events. So when survivors emerge from the carcass of a crumpled jumbo jet, as they did outside Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on Wednesday or on the Hudson River in mid-January, the spectacle is often described as miraculous. But survival in an airplane crash is no miracle. It is the result of more-prosaic interventions, from sturdier seats to more carefully placed emergency lights.

Just a day before the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash-landed in light fog, killing at least nine of the 134 passengers on board, a congressional committee in Washington heard testimony from industry experts on the ways in which various regulatory steps and changes to aircraft have greatly improved passenger survivability in airplane crashes. In testimony to members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Candace Kolander, air-safety coordinator for the Association of Flight Attendants, a flight-attendant union that has long pushed for improvements to onboard safety, listed three main successes that are proving to save lives. (Read "How to Survive a Plane Crash.")

Sturdier Seats
Congress's Airport and Airway Safety Act of 1987 called for regulators to improve what is called the "crash-worthiness standard" of seats — in effect, the likelihood that they will crumple and crush passengers at impact. It took 17 years to accomplish the task, as the Federal Aviation Administration tussled with aircraft manufacturers and airlines that balked at paying for the upgraded seats. The FAA produced evidence that sturdier seats could have prevented 45 fatalities between 1984 and 1998. A deal was reached. In 2005, the FAA mandated that all U.S. aircraft built after October 2009 meet the "16g rule" — seats must be built to withstand crash forces equivalent to 16 times the force of gravity (older seats were 9g compliant). Ironically, the long negotiation period and concerns among the airlines that the FAA would make requirements retroactive means that almost all major airlines in operation today already have 16g-compatible seats. (See pictures of the plane in the Hudson River.)

Fire Retardant
On Feb. 1, 1991, USAir Flight 1493 crashed into another aircraft while landing at Los Angeles International Airport. After surviving the impact, 20 passengers and two crew members died as a result of smoke inhalation as they waited to leave at the overwing exit. During the 1980s, the FAA instituted various measures that demanded aircrafts upgrade the flammability standards of materials on board. The USAir aircraft was built before the effective date of those requirements and had not yet been modernized. All aircraft in the U.S. are now compliant. The requirements were strengthened in 1991, when the FAA required all large transport planes to carry smoke detectors in lavatories, an automatic fire extinguisher in trash receptacles and more fire extinguishers throughout the cabin. (See pictures from the Buffalo, N.Y., plane crash.)

Emergency Exits
Getting to an emergency exit as quickly and safely as possible is a key factor in surviving an airplane crash. Passengers tend to take the glowing pellets that line cabin floors for granted, but until 1984, emergency lighting systems typically employed overhead lights — not much help in smoke or in a frenzied panic, during which passengers tend to keep their heads down. In 1990, the FAA took another step by requiring passengers sitting in emergency-exit seats to be willing and able to perform safety functions.

These three fixes have saved lives. In her testimony to a congressional subcommittee, Kolander said airlines and aircraft manufacturers have traditionally had a safety culture more attuned to preventing airplane crashes. But just as important, she said, airlines should prepare to mitigate the dangers when the worst happens. A step like improving the sturdiness of seats, she concluded, "is an essential element of preparation for the crash that can result when accident prevention fails."

Read "How to Escape Down an Airplane Slide."

See pictures of the history of air communications and in-flight entertainment.