Anyone seeing the pictures of the smoldering wreckage of Asiana Flight 214 on a San Francisco runway [on July 6] and hearing the terrifying passenger stories had to wonder how anyone could have survived. Yet only two passengers were killed of the 307 people aboard. (Editor’s note: A third passenger died several days later.)
We have seen a number of frightening aviation incidents over the past few years — such as Air France Flight 358 in 2008 in Toronto, British Airways Flight 38 in 2011 in London, and most recently Lion Air Flight 904 last April in Indonesia — in which every passenger survived.
It’s not a miracle that passengers walk away from accidents such as these. Aviation safety professionals, both in the industry and with the government, have worked for decades not only to mitigate the risk of an accident, but also to make those accidents which occur more survivable.
They have taken what has been learned from past accidents and worked closely with the aircraft manufacturers to build into the design safety improvements that will increase passenger survivability.
Fire-resistant materials in the cabin, along with seats that are designed to withstand 16 times the force of gravity, immediately come to mind.
After a terrible collision of two airliners on the ground in 1991 at Los Angeles International that led to 34 deaths by fire and smoke inhalation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reiterated past recommendations for fire resistant materials in the cabin.
The NTSB started calling for seats that are designed to withstand a 16g impact in the 1970s after investigating accidents where this was a major factor.
The normal and emergency exit doors on aircraft also have been made to operate more easily and will spring out of the way to allow a faster escape.
The Boeing 777 was first put into service in 1995 and has had a stellar safety record. It incorporates all of the technological advances that have been developed over the years that were designed with passenger survival in mind.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations, in order for an aircraft to be certified for flight, the manufacturer must show that all the passengers are able to evacuate in 90 seconds with half of the exits blocked.
It appears that in this crash the passengers mainly exited through the four doors on the left side of the aircraft, showing the importance of paying attention to the cabin crew during the safety briefing and following all instructions during an emergency.
We take aviation safety for granted now, but accidents can still happen. Approaches and landings rank in the top three areas of accidents worldwide. But as we can see from this accident and others like it, approach and landing accidents are also very survivable.
We have no answers yet about Asiana 214. The NTSB has just started what will be a thorough investigation. But one thing we can be certain of is that as the NTSB determines the actual cause and makes official suggestions to mitigate future risk, improving passenger survivability will be a top priority.
(This column first appeared in USA Today and is reprinted here with permission.)