As the nation breathes a sigh of relief for the many passengers of Asiana Airlines passengers on Flight 214 who escaped uninjured after their Boeing 777 crashed in San Francisco, aircraft safety experts are attributing the relatively small number of fatalities to government regulations adopted in the aftermath of past accidents.
In the past decade, the Federal Aviation Administration — the office responsible for overseeing all aspects of civil aviation — has instituted a series of aircraft safety standards that undoubtedly saved lives on Saturday, Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, told ThinkProgress on Tuesday morning, pointing to new mandates for everything from seating to enhanced training of flight attendants. American regulations lead the world and are typically adopted by airlines in Europe and Japan, with only minor adjustments.
For instance, in 1988 airplanes began installing so-called 16 G passenger seats that stay in place “when subjected to stresses up to 16 times the force of gravity” after regulators discovered “that passengers might survive a crash were they not crushed to death when the seats tore loose from the floor.” Despite initial opposition from the airline industry, final regulations were implemented in June of 2009 and Goelz believes that the stronger chairs prevented passengers from being thrown throughout the cabin as the rear of the Flight 2014 slammed down on the ground, allowing individuals to evacuate in time.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that if the old 9 G standard would have been part of that airplane those seats would have behaved as well as they did,” Todd Curtis, an air safety analyst added.
A series of evolutionary changes to fire code requirements also protected passengers on the flight. FAA implemented reduced flammability and nontoxic gas emissions of interior components after an Air Canada accident in 1983 caused a fire in which the overwhelming majority of passengers died from toxic gas and smoke. It also instituted an enhanced burn-through rate standard to guarantee that the skin of the airplane and insulation resist fire for up to four minutes, allowing passengers more time to escape. Regulations require that airlines and flight attendants be able to evacuate a full passenger load with only half of the exits operating in under 90 seconds.
But Goelz now fears that sequestration and the GOP’s zeal for applying greater cost benefit analysis to all safety regulations could prevent regulators from instituting such safety standards in the future. The regulations outlined above would “have a tough time meeting the kind of cost benefit analysis that these guys want,” Goelz said, noting House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s (R-PA) push for more burdensome economic analysis. Curtis disagreed with this characterization, arguing that the industry itself had incentives to unilaterally implement additional safety requirements.
Lawmakers gave the FAA relief from the first round of sequestration, “but the idea that they’re going to have another round of it is pretty ominous,” Goelz added, “safety investigators are going to ber laid off or pushed back.”