Airplane Safety Features to Make Crashes Survivable

New airplane manufacturer guidelines

It may be surprising, but most airplane crashes are survivable -- especially those that happen during takeoff and landing.

Now, Federal Aviation Administration officials hope a new rule going into effect Tuesday will make it even more likely that passengers will be able to walk away from a crash.

The new guidelines require commercial planes to have stronger seats and better head protection for passengers to help ensure they survive a hard impact and have time to get out of the aircraft before it's too late.

"Only one out of three major airline accidents is fatal," William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, told ABC News. "So it's very important that you are able to get up and out of the aircraft quickly. ... You've only got about 60 seconds typically if there is a major fire."

Safety experts point to the August 2005 crash-landing of Air France flight 358 in Toronto as an example of how stronger seats can save lives. More than 300 people were able to scramble out of the aircraft after the Airbus A340 sped off the runway and burst into flames.

"The stronger seats are going to help you survive that initial impact uninjured and help you quickly move out of the cabin," said Voss.

The FAA is requiring manufacturers to install seats that can withstand impacts of 16 times the force of gravity. While many commercial planes already have the stronger seats in place, starting Tuesday they will be required on all new aircraft. The improved seat essentially absorbs the energy of the crash so the passenger doesn't.

Also, airlines are beginning to install on some passenger seats seat belts equipped with air bags meant to prevent serious head injuries in a crash.

Bill Hagen, president of AmSafe Aviation, which designs airplane safety equipment, helped develop air bags for General Motors. Now he's applying the same technology to planes.

"We'll sew that bag onto the same seat belt that you wear on an ordinary seat," said Hagen, who gave ABC News a tour of his company's seat belt production facility in Phoenix. "If the aircraft runs into something and decelerates at a great enough level to be a risk to the passengers, the air bags will deploy."

Airplane Seat Belt Air Bags to Make Crashes Survivable

In a demonstration for ABC News, AmSafe outfitted one crash dummy with a seat belt air bag and another without. The dummies -- mimicking passengers sitting in a bulkhead seat -- hurled forward before coming to an abrupt stop. The crash dummy without the air bag smashed its head into the barrier.

"He would absolutely not have survived this event," said Hagen.

The dummy wearing the air bag seat belt fared substantially better. "This person would be able to unbuckle their seatbelt and walk off the aircraft," he said.

The air bags are being rolled out for installation in bulkhead seats, those behind galleys and bathrooms, exit rows, and in business and first class -- locations where it's impossible for airlines to meet new safety requirements for survivable head injuries.

"The airlines are faced with two choices," said Hagen, "They can increase the seat pitch ... so the occupant's head doesn't hit the bulkhead ... which is tantamount to taking seats off of the aircraft." The other choice is to install seat belt air bags.

AmSafe said its patented seat belt air bags, which cost roughly $1,250 apiece, are used on about 25,000 seats on more than 30 airlines worldwide.

The air bag seat belts are increasingly in use in private planes as well, where, AmSafe said, they have already saved lives.

"The bag deploys in about 50 milliseconds, which is quicker than you can blink your eye," said Tom Barth, director of research and development at AmSafe. And in aircraft accidents, every second counts.

The manufacturer also said these airbags are safer than those installed in cars because they deploy up and away from the passenger instead of toward you. And the designer insisted the air bag sensors were designed so they wouldn't suddenly deploy in heavy turbulence.

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