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

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

First, an Air Canada flight made an emergency landing at Cincinnati's airport in 1983 after a fire broke out in the bathroom. The plane landed safely but half of the 46 passengers and crew died because they couldn't quickly escape the smoke and fire.

Two years later, a British Airtours aborted a takeoff in Manchester, England after an engine fire. Passengers evacuated but not fast enough. Of the 137 people onboard, 54 died after inhaling toxic smoke.

"Those two accidents together were the two-by-four to the head" that led the U.S. and British governments to impose new fire-safety standards, said Bill Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott, Ariz. campus.

Saturday's Asiana crash may have benefited from those changes. The Boeing 777 involved was manufactured in 2005 and contained all of the advances in safety.

"It may have been worse if that fuselage had been designed with practices that were common 20 or 30 years prior," said Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing and now a director of the Airsafe.com Foundation.

The emergency response also played a part in limiting the number of fatalities. Airport fire departments frequently hold drills where crews simulate a crash and practice coordinating with area hospitals on how to care for the injured.

"Had this happened in a developing world country with no (advanced) trauma center, there might have been more fatalities," Curtis said.

New technology helps today's pilots avoid the deadliest types of crashes. Accidents with planes hitting mountains or each other in midair, typically at speeds up to 500 mph, are rare in North America and Europe. Crashes during landing happen while planes are flying at lower speeds of 130 to 150 mph.

"You've changed the nature of accidents," said Capt. Alan W. Price, the former chief pilot for the Atlanta base of Delta Air Lines and founder of consulting firm Falcon Leadership.

Today's planes come with ground proximity warning systems, which alert pilots if they are too low. An alarm sounds and a computer shouts "terrain, pull up."

That technology didn't exist in 1974, when a Trans World Airlines plane heading for Washington Dulles International Airport crashed into 1,754-foot tall Mount Weather in Virginia. All 92 people on board died.

Modern cockpit radar systems alert pilots to other planes nearby. Such a system would have probably prevented the 1960 midair collision of a TWA jet with a United plane over New York, killing all 128 people on the two planes and 6 people on the ground.

Better radar systems on the ground have also helped. They've prevented planes from going down the wrong taxiway or onto active runways. The deadliest aviation disaster in history remains the collision of Pan Am and KLM jets on the runway of Tenerife in Spain's Canary Islands in 1977. In foggy conditions, amid confusion over air traffic controller instructions, the KLM plane took off while the Pan Am jet was taxing down the same runway. The crash killed 583 people on both planes; 61 survived. Had such radar existed at the time, the KLM pilots would have probably seen the Pan Am jet in its way.

Today, thanks to these advances there are about two deaths worldwide for every 100 million passengers on commercial flights, according to an Associated Press analysis of government accident data.

Just a decade ago, passengers were 10 times as likely to die when flying on an American plane. The risk of death was even greater during the start of the jet age, with 1,696 people dying — 133 out of every 100 million passengers — from 1962 to 1971. The figures exclude acts of terrorism.

Those in the airline industry often say that a person is more likely to die driving to the airport than on a flight. There are more than 30,000 motor-vehicle deaths each year, a mortality rate eight times greater than that in planes.

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Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.

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