10/15/2012 07:45 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Is Your Seat Cushion An Effective Flotation Device?

There has been a significant and disturbing increase in the number of reported airline incidents.

Most recently, American Airlines grounded dozens of planes after rows of seats came undone during flight. In August, the NTSB reported on a near cataclysmic mid-air collision between a cargo plane and an American airlines passenger jet off the coast of New York City, in May another passenger jet and cargo plane en-route to Honolulu missed one another by just 300 feet, and in 2011 the FAA investigated a major airline for allegedly flying a passenger jet to the Caribbean without any life vests or life rafts on board (and this is but a few examples).

Once I'm able to catch my breath, I'm relieved and thankful no one was injured in any of these incidents.

However, there's another part of me that wonders: If something awful did occur, is there a chance people could survive? Are planes properly equipped with emergency gear to aid those people fortunate enough to survive an impact?

Assuming you're anything like me, you have likely wondered why some planes are equipped with life vests and others just with seat cushion flotation devices. Unlike me, you probably stopped caring about the answer at the precise moment the flight attendant took your drink order.

Since I'm not a drinker and finding out the truth about things is one of my passions... I did some investigating. It turns out there's actually a reason why some planes have life vests and others don't. It's a very bad reason with potentially fatal consequences. The FAA does not require the airlines to carry life vests on domestic routes because they don't fly over water.

Anyone whose flown from New York City to Tampa knows that's not correct. Most of the flight's route is over the Atlantic. Same with flights from Los Angeles to San Francisco as well as any number of other countless routes whose destination is a coastal airport.

In fact, thousands of domestic flights fly over water, as much as 50 miles off shore.
But that doesn't matter to the FAA, who has decided that as long as a flight is LESS than 50 miles from the coast, it is not required to have life vests on board.

So, you're probably thinking: "What's the big deal? If a plane doesn't have a life vest, so what? It's got a seat cushion that can be used as a flotation device. Isn't it the same?"

In a word: no.

Compared to the life vest, the seat cushion is a grossly inferior life saving device more likely to hasten your death than aid in your survival.

In cold water, where hypothermia will set in in less than three minutes, you will lose muscle strength and dexterity, your arms will become numb and gripping the seat cushion will be impossible. In which case, you will surely drown and die if you had survived the initial crash.

Unlike the life vest, the seat cushion is not designed to automatically keep your head out of the water. That means that, unlike with the life vest, you must be conscious in order to take advantage of the seat cushion's life saving capability. If you are unconscious but still alive, holding onto the seat cushion will be impossible.

The seat cushion will not float more than one person. The life vest, on the other hand, properly inflated, could easily float two people... and perhaps even a third.

Suppose you're traveling with a small child? Assuming you and the child survive a crash, it's unlikely the child will be able to coordinate holding onto their own seat cushion, which requires strength and dexterity.

If you're wondering how you can trust any of this, fear not. This is information I gathered during the production of This vs That (a new TV series), from a former United Airlines pilot with 30 thousand heavy jet flying hours and the director of operations from the nation's leader in airline emergency safety training, both consultants to This vs That's remarkable life vest / seat cushion demonstrations, some which you can see here. The rest will premiere soon.

Jon Hotchkiss is the creator of This vs That, a new investigative series that uses the cold facts of science, dynamic experiments, remarkable demonstrations and the unadulterated truth to reveal the answers to life's most common and vexing dilemmas. No bias. No bullshit. Just science, fact and funny.