Passengers more likely to survive plane crashes thanks to cabin advances, cockpit technology

  • Article by: SCOTT MAYEROWITZ , AP Airlines Writer
  • Updated: July 8, 2013 - 7:50 AM

Passengers in plane crashes today, such as the one in San Francisco involving Asiana Airlines Flight 214, are more likely to survive than in past disasters.

Saturday's crash was the latest where a big commercial airliner was destroyed but most passengers escaped with their lives. There were plenty of cuts, bruises and broken bones — and some more severe injuries — but only two of the 307 passengers and crew onboard died.

Planes now are structurally sounder. In the cabin, stronger seats are less likely to move and crush passengers. Seat cushions and carpeting are fire retardant and doors are easier to open. Those improvements allow people to exit the plane more quickly.

The nature of crashes has also changed. Improvements in cockpit technology mean that planes rarely crash into mountains or each other — accidents that are much more deadly.

"Crashes are definitely more survivable today than they were a few decades ago," said Kevin Hiatt, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an industry-backed nonprofit group aimed at improving air safety. "We've learned from the past incidents about what can be improved."

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the Asiana crash. But whatever the reason, it reflects the trend of fewer people dying in plane accidents.

The odds weren't always in passengers' favor. From 1962 to 1981, 54 percent of people in plane crashes were killed. From 1982 to 2009, that figure improved to 39 percent, according to an Associated Press analysis of National Transportation Safety Board data. Those figures only include crashes with at least one fatality. There have been other serious crashes where everybody survived.

The most famous was a US Airways flight in January 2009 that lost engine power after striking a flock of geese after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport. Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger ditched the Airbus A320 in the Hudson River and all 155 people onboard survived. The crash was dubbed the "Miracle on the Hudson."

A British Airways flight in January 2008 crashed short of the runway at London's Heathrow Airport. All 152 passengers and crew onboard the Boeing 777 — the same jet type as Saturday's Asiana flight — survived.

This April, a Boeing 737 flown by Indonesian airline Lion Air crashed into water short of a runway in Bali. The plane's fuselage split into two sections but all 108 people on board survived.

"What's really important is for people to understand that airplane crashes, the majority of them are survivable," Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Sunday on the CBS News show, "Face the Nation."

Several advances in aviation technology have made these feats of survival possible. They include:

— Stronger seats. Today's airplane seats — and the bolts holding them into the floor — are designed to withstand forces up to 16 times that of gravity. That prevents rows of seats from pancaking together during a crash, crushing passengers.

— Fire retardant materials. Carpeting and seat cushions are now made of materials that burn slower, spread flames slower and don't give off noxious and dangerous gases.

— Improved exits. Doors on planes are much simpler to open and easily swing out of the way, allowing passengers to quickly exit. And planes now come with rows of lights on the floor that change from white to red when an exit is reached.

— Better training. Flight attendants at many airlines now train in full-size models of planes that fill with smoke during crash simulations.

— Stronger planes. Aircraft engineers have looked at structural weaknesses from past crashes and reinforced those sections of the plane.

Regulators started mandating such cabin improvements after two deadly aircraft fires in the 1980s.

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