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Why Catastrophic Airline Crashes Have Become More Survivable

Jul 8, 2013
Originally published on July 8, 2013 1:06 pm

The Boeing 777 that crash-landed in San Francisco has one of the best safety records in the industry. In addition to the plane's solid reputation, many other factors helped save lives in Saturday's crash — from fire-rescue training to aircraft design.

If you look at pictures of the gutted, charred fuselage of Flight 214, you'd wonder how anybody made it out alive. All but two of the 307 passengers and crew survived. Both people killed were teenage girls from China.

"Triple-7 is one of the safest airplanes flying right now," says Bill Waldock, a professor of air safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "It's only had one other crash and that was in 2008 with British Airways at London. And that one didn't kill anybody. So far, this is the first crash where we've had a fatality in the airplane, and it's been in service for over 18 years."

That crash involving a Boeing 777 at London's Heathrow turned out to be frozen fuel in the lines, which caused the engines to fail on approach. Boeing corrected the problem.

"At this time, we have not identified any specific similarities with that cause of the Heathrow event, but it is very early in our investigation," said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, who was briefing reports in San Francisco on Sunday. The NTSB is the lead agency in the investigation.

Over the many decades of commercial air travel, the airlines have learned more and more about why airplanes crash and how passengers survive.

Airplane manufacturers, for instance, are building passenger seats much stronger — they're able to withstand 16 Gs of force. So they don't rip off the floor and go flying through the cabin, injuring passengers, as they did years ago.

The cabin is safer overall, says Hans Weber, president of TECOP International, an aviation consulting firm.

"A lot of effort was put into slowing down the spread of fire after a crash landing, making the materials in the interior of the cabin more fire resistant and also changing the materials such that they wouldn't emit very highly toxic fumes," Weber says.

Aviation safety experts say it is also important to give credit to major improvements in the human response to airline accidents.

After Flight 214 broke apart, flight attendants were able to quickly deploy the inflatable slides and get everyone off the plane before the fire erupted.

"The fact that they serve coffee and tea and whatever else is certainly secondary," says Jim Tilmon, an aviation consultant who flew commercially for 29 years. "I mean, these flight attendants are extremely well trained."

Finally, there was quick action by fire and rescue teams at San Francisco International Airport. They had water and foam on the blazing fuselage within minutes — showing how disaster response has matured, says Todd Curtis, an aviation safety expert who runs the website AirSafe.com.

"That's not something that's just at San Francisco," he says, "That's something that's been honed to an art form almost by fire crews around the world."

Indeed, the crash of the Asiana jetliner is the first fatal U.S. air disaster in almost five years; and the Aviation Safety Network says last year had the fewest airline fatalities internationally since 1945.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Boeing 777 - the type of jet that crash landed in San Francisco over the weekend - has one of the best safety records in the industry. And in addition to the airplane's solid reputation, many other factors helped save lives in Saturday's crash, from fire rescue training to aircraft design. So far, two people have died and dozens more were seriously hurt in the accident. As NPR's John Burnett reports, airplane crashes that used to be catastrophic are more survivable today.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: If you look at the pictures of the gutted, charred hulk of Flight 214, you'd wonder how anybody made it out alive. All but two of the 307 passengers and crew survived. Both people killed were teenaged girls from China. First, there's the Boeing Triple 7, as it's known in the industry. Bill Waldock is professor of air safety science at Embry-Riddle University.

BILL WALDOCK: Triple-7 is one of the safest airplanes flying right now. It's only had one other crash; that was in 2008 with British Airways in London. And that one didn't kill anybody. So far, this is the first crash where we've had a fatality in the airplane, and it's been in service for over 18 years.

BURNETT: In 2008, as he said, a British Airways Triple-7 crash-landed short of the runway at London's Heathrow Airport. There were no deaths. The problem turned out to be frozen fuel in the lines, which caused the engines to fail on approach. Boeing corrected the problem. Here's Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board-the lead agency on the San Francisco incident. She spoke to reporters yesterday at the airport.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DEBORAH HERSMAN: But at this time we have not identified any specific similarities with that cause of the Heathrow event, but it is very early in our investigation.

BURNETT: Over the many decades of commercial air travel, the airlines have learned more and more about why airplanes crash and how passengers survive. Airplane manufacturers, for instance, are building passenger seats much stronger - they're able to withstand 16 g's of force. So they don't rip off the floor and go flying through the cabin, injuring passengers, as they did years ago. The cabin is safer, overall, says Hans Weber, president of TECOP International, an aviation consulting firm.

HANS WEBER: A lot of effort was put into slowing down the spread of fire after a crash landing, making the materials in the interior of the cabin more fire resistant and also changing the materials such that they wouldn't emit very highly toxic fumes.

BURNETT: Aviation safety experts say it is also important to give credit to major improvements in the human response to airline accidents. After Flight 214 broke apart, flight attendants were able to quickly deploy the inflatable slides and get everyone off the plane before the fire erupted. Jim Tilmon is an aviation consultant who flew commercially for 29 years.

JIM TILMON: The fact that they serve coffee and tea and whatever else, is certainly just secondary. I mean, these flight attendants are extremely well trained.

BURNETT: Finally, quick action by fire/rescue teams at San Francisco International Airport, who had water and foam on the blazing fuselage within minutes, shows how disaster response has matured, says Todd Curtis. He's an aviation safety expert who runs the website airsafe.com.

TODD CURTIS: That's not something that's just at San Francisco, that's something that's been honed to an art form, almost, by fire crews around the world.

BURNETT: Indeed, the crash of the Asiana jetliner is the first fatal U.S. air disaster in almost five years; and the Aviation Safety Network says last year had the fewest airline fatalities internationally since 1945. John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.