Crashes of several airliners in the recent past, including the Air France flight 358 that burst into flames after the plane skidded off a windswept Toronto runway during a violent thunderstorm last August, have left many travelers wondering just how safe air travel is nowadays.
Perhaps more importantly, people also have questions about the possibility - even the probability - of surviving an air disaster, even though in the above case, no one died. There is convincing evidence that it's very possible to live to tell about it. And, experts say, there are life-saving steps that passengers, who may experience the horrors of a similar event, can take to better ensure their survival.
In addition, today's airplanes are designed with safety in mind, and are built and equipped with a number of technologically advanced safety features.
At Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Seattle, Walt Gillette, vice president of 787 Airplane Development, spoke of some of the safety features of the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing's newest airplane, and of the overall safety of today's commercial aircraft.
"First, it has to be understood that today's commercial airplanes are as safe in design and as flying machines as they can be. What we do is simply tweak that a bit, as we introduce the latest advances in technology into the picture to make it easier for the pilot to fly the airplane," he explained.
Among the new technology that will be aboard the 787 - which will be in service by mid-2008, and which has recorded the highest pre-flight sales in the history of commercial aviation - Gillette said, are a system to remove potentially flammable oxygen from fuel tanks; additional computing power in the cockpit; a dual Head Up Display that, like those in use in jet fighters, projects information immediately before the pilot and co-pilot's field of vision, so neither is distracted by other duties; enhanced stall protection that gives the pilot greater control of the airplane; and an airport taxi map display, as opposed to paper maps, to make it more convenient and easier for the pilot while improving safety on the ground.
"The goal is to create 'a quiet cockpit,' while making flying natural and intuitive, " said Gillette.
As for the variables of wind and weather, those elements are always there, he noted, and are considered in the design process: "On-board radar now pinpoints weather cells so pilots can avoid severe thunderstorms."
Today's airplanes, he added, are also equipped with sophisticated warning systems that alert the crew when potentially deadly downdrafts occur.
In its role as a regulatory agency, the Federal Aviation Administration imposes a set of strict safety standards on airplane manufacturers. "FAA aircraft certification safety standards are widely regarded as the most stringent in the world. Our certification personnel are responsible for the issuance of new design approvals, and production and air-worthiness certificates," according to Allen Kenitzer, a spokesman for the FAA.
"Typically, FAA standards specify 'what' must be met, but not 'how,' allowing manufacturers to come up with innovative designs," said Kenitzer.
According to a March 2001 study, "Survivability of Accidents Involving Part 121 U.S. Air Carrier Operations, 1983 through 2000," by the National Transportation Safety Board, in Washington, D.C., 95.7 percent or 51,207 occupants survived all accidents involving commercial aircraft during those years. (Part 121 means a set of federal regulations that deal with the maintenance plans and overall operating plans of commercial aircraft).
While 2,280 people perished on those flights, the large number of survivors reflects the efforts of industry and government to ensure passenger safety, the NTSB study revealed. Cabin structural integrity, seat belts, seat design, child-restraint systems and brace positions, such as tucking the head between the knees while seated, all can increase a person's likelihood of surviving an impact, the report continued.
Fire retardency, fire-detection systems in lavatories and cargo compartments, exit design, aircraft configuration and evacuation procedures - including floor-level escape lighting and heat-resistant slides - can assist persons to escape an airplane after an accident. Over the last decade, air travelers have been provided improvements in many of these areas, the study indicated.
In addition to aircraft design, the most important thing passengers can do is pay attention to the pre-flight briefing given by the crew. The study, undertaken in part to "help dispel the public perception that most air-carrier accidents aren't survivable," showed that more than two-thirds of passengers don't examine the safety briefing card found in the seat back.
Empowered with the knowledge of aircraft-accident survivability rates, passengers, in addition to paying attention and reading safety cards, should take the extra step of knowing and planning exit routes from the aircraft in the event of a problem.
As part of airport, airplane and passenger safety, a local company, Engineered Arresting Systems Corporation in Aston, manufactures and installs so-called arrestor beds at airports. The technology is known as the Engineered Materials Arresting System.