WASHINGTON — Federal safety officials weighed Tuesday whether to recommend that some planes be equipped with air bags and shoulder-lap seatbelts, safety devices that have been saving lives in automobile crashes for decades.
The board released a study of general aviation planes equipped with air bags that highlights several cases in which air bags were critical to the survival of pilots or passengers, or which reduced serious injuries.
General aviation aircraft range from single-engine propeller planes to multi-engine business jets to helicopters. The category includes all aircraft except scheduled airline service, air taxis and military aircraft.
More than half the new general aviation planes sold today have both lap-shoulder belts and air bags, the board said. But NTSB officials say that accounts for only about 7,000 planes out of more than 200,000 general aviation planes registered in the U.S. The average general aviation plane is over 40 years old, the board said. Aviation air bags were approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2003. Some aircraft manufacturers, including Cessna and Cirrus, began including them as standard equipment on new planes beginning in 2005.
The NTSB study looked at 138 accidents involving planes equipped with airbags over three years ending in July 2009. Investigators described two crashes in particular – in Fullerton, Calif., and Boyceville, Wis., in which air bags were found to have reduced chest and head injuries to pilots and passengers.
The board also examined 37,000 accidents between 1983 and 2008. It found 50 percent more injuries in planes with lap-only seatbelts than in planes with lap-shoulder belts.
AmSafe Inc. of Phoenix, the only U.S. maker of air bags for planes, has documented 20 cases over the past several years in which its air bags were important to the survival of general aviation pilots and passengers, Joseph Smith, an AmSafe manager, said in an interview.
There were 474 people killed in 1,474 general aviation accidents in 2009, the latest year for which NTSB figures are available. While accident rate for commercial airlines has dropped significantly over the past decade, the general aviation rate for the same period has remained largely unchanged.
One reason the board is interested in examining the benefits of air bags for general aviation planes is that the accident rate for general aviation planes is more than five times greater than small commuter airlines or air taxis, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said.
Air bags have been required in cars since the mid-1990s, and shoulder harness seatbelts even longer – but not in small planes.
Unlike automobile air bags, AmSafe air bags are integrated into either the shoulder harness or lap portion of airplane seatbelts. The NTSB repeatedly has recommended since 1970 that the FAA require general aviation planes be equipped with combination lap-shoulder seatbelts. Its predecessor, the Civil Aviation Board, first recommended FAA require planes be equipped with shoulder belts in 1964. However, unlike the auto industry, there is no requirement for shoulder belts in planes.
AmSafe doesn't make air bags for helicopters, but there's no reason why it shouldn't be possible, Smith said.