Additional Safety Systems on Airplanes Might Help Passengers Survive Crashes
The disastrous Canary Island runway crash of two jumbo jets operated by KLM and Pan American raises anew the questions: Why have not the airlines or their over-accommodating regulator, the FAA, required the aircraft manufacturers to build more passenger survivability into airplanes?
Most commercial airline crashes occur on landing or takeoff at low altitudes and at relatively slow speeds. Many of these crash impacts would have been survivable if the aircraft had been equipped with long-known safety features. But the airlines do not specify these safety systems when they order their aircraft and the FAA has been delaying unconscionably in the issuance of regulations in these areas. When passengers survive a crash, they have to evacuate the plane as soon as possible. FAA regulations say an aircraft should be evacuated in 90 seconds. But the passengers and crew cannot make it out if they are burned, gassed or physically obstructed.
First, there are fuel fires and explosions, as happened in the recent jumbo jet collision. For over a decade, fuel fire and explosion suppression systems have been used in military aviation and could be used for commercial aircraft. Fuel systems can be made more crash resistant. For example, the dangers of fuel tank explosions and fires can be reduced by using a nitrogen inserting technique.
THE FAA HAS dilly-dallied for years and still has not issued any standards in these crucial hazard areas.
Second, synthetic materials used in aircraft seat cushions, carpets and the walls of aircraft interiors emit a deadly combination of cyanide and carbon monoxide fumes when subjected to intense heat or burning. These gases are so toxic that passengers are cut down in seconds before they can reach an emergency exit or other opening.
An airliner made an emergency landing near Paris in 1973 after a fire started near the rear lavatory. One hundred and twenty-three people died from inhaling the toxic fumes and smoke from burning materials.
The FAA started a proceeding in 1969, recognizing that the toxic fume menace required higher safety standards for cabin materials. Eight years later, the FAA has still not acted. In 1975, the FAA started proceedings to reduce the smoke levels of cabin materials that can obstruct seeing the exits as well as overcoming passengers. The agency has still not acted.
Third, the seat anchors in passenger aircraft are less than half as securely fastened as are automobile seats, which themselves leave much to be desired. In a crash landing, the seats are likely to fly forward, incapacitating passengers or obstructing their escape. Here also, the FAA looks the other way.
Fourth, aircraft crews could use more training and seat protection to be able to perform the increasingly complicated emergency evacuation procedures in large aircraft. Not all crew members receive this training. In addition, accident studies show that flight attendants are particularly vulnerable due to the flimsy, exposed seats they occupy on landing and takeoff.
Why has the FAA looked the other way? Because their closeness to the industry makes them more sensitive to overblown economic arguments than to the cries of the perished and their kin. The airlines are gambling that they can save more by cutting safety corners than by paying millions in accident claims.
FEW OF THESE safety features are very costly anyhow. This is especially so when viewed comparatively. with the enormous airline advertising expenditures pushing fleeting promotional schemes. Tens of millions of dollars go for advertising free bagels and booze, movies, super-bowl replays, brightly painted air- – craft, inflight piano bars, and “wide-bodied” interiors for their smaller planes.
A ground proximity warning device, finally required by the FAA. after several preventable airline’ crashes, costs about $10,000 per plane. Redecorating an airplane with a “wide-bodied” look costs over $200,000.
The new FAA Administrator is Langhorne Bond. He’ll have to move very fast to make up for one of Washington’s most ingrown and dilatory agency performances.