Airline Safety Standards Lauded for Saving Lives in Tragic Plane Crash

On July 6, an Asiana Airlines jet carrying over 300 passengers crashed when landing in San Francisco, CA, killing three female passengers and injuring many more. The exact cause of the crash remains uncertain pending a thorough investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). However, given that most passengers sustained only minor injuries, it is clear that the crash could have been much worse.

In an interview on PBS' NewsHour Monday evening, Peter Goelz, a former managing director of NTSB, explained that “20 years ago, the death toll would have been much greater.” Goelz described last week’s crash of Flight 214 as a “horrendous event” but credited government regulations, such as those issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “mandating stronger seats, mandating that the interior of aircrafts be more fire-retardant and that they not emit toxic gases when ignited,” as the reason so many passengers were able to walk away with minor or no injuries.

In a ThinkProgress post earlier today, blogger Igor Volsky noted that U.S. airline safety standards are the model across the globe, regularly adopted by Japanese and European airlines. In one example, Volsky noted:

[I]n 1988 airplanes began installing so-called 16 G passenger seats that stay in place “when subjected to stresses up to 16 times the force of gravity” after regulators discovered “that passengers might survive a crash were they not crushed to death when the seats tore loose from the floor.” Despite initial opposition from the airline industry, final regulations were implemented in June of 2009 and Goelz believes that the stronger chairs prevented passengers from being thrown throughout the cabin as the rear of [Flight 214] slammed down on the ground, allowing individuals to evacuate in time.

Volsky also elaborated on the FAA's fire safety standards:

A series of evolutionary changes to fire code requirements also protected passengers on the flight. FAA implemented reduced flammability and nontoxic gas emissions of interior components after an Air Canada accident in 1983 caused a fire in which the overwhelming majority of passengers died from toxic gas and smoke. It also instituted an enhanced burn-through rate standard to guarantee that the skin of the airplane and insulation resist fire for up to four minutes, allowing passengers more time to escape.

Unfortunately, a number of anti-regulatory proposals are currently pending in Congress that would make adopting further safety measures far more difficult. Indeed, had the additional burdensome analyses contained in these bills been around 20 years ago, many of the standards that saved lives last Saturday may not have been issued.

Lead-in image courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board, used under a Creative Commons license.

Editor's Note (7/24/13): This article has been updated since its original publication date to reflect the death of a third female passenger on July 12th from critical injuries sustained during the crash.

back to Blog