Air Safety

Four Reasons So Many People Survived the Asiana Crash


NTSB investigators examine the rear end of Asiana Airlines flight 214 following the crash on July 7 in San Francisco

Photograph by NTSB via Getty Images

NTSB investigators examine the rear end of Asiana Airlines flight 214 following the crash on July 7 in San Francisco

Given the charred and mangled state of the Asiana 777 after its July 6 crash landing in San Francisco, it’s hard to believe that the accident, which killed two passengers, didn’t result in more fatalities. Enormous advances in materials and crew training—and the lessons of past tragedies—have dramatically increased the odds of survival in airline disasters.

“We took a very safe industry and we made it even safer,” says Robert Mann, an aviation consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. Here are some of the industry changes that likely helped so many passengers on Asiana Flight 214 walk away from the scene.

Airplane Seats
All seats on modern airplanes such as the 777 are designed to withstand extreme forces up to 16 times the pull of gravity. The connections between the floor and seats have also been strengthened so that seats do not come loose in a crash. In the Asiana crash, the NTSB plans to inspect each of the more than 300 passenger seats to see how they performed. That data will be used for future engineering to make seats and other aircraft equipment even safer.

Fire Resistance
The plastics and fabrics aboard airplanes not only are engineered to retard flames; they also don’t produce toxic fumes when they do encounter fire. That wasn’t always the case—smoke can be even more deadly than flames in an airplane crash. Airplanes built after 1990 also must meet standards on how much heat materials release in a fire and the density of smoke the fire produces.

Evacuation
Airplanes must be evacuated within 90 seconds, a feat that airlines rigorously train flight attendants to achieve. That means passengers have a fighting chance to flee an airplane before fire and smoke can engulf a fuselage. In the Asiana crash, it appears that most passengers were off the airplane before flames consumed parts of the hull.

Research and Analysis
Around the globe, the U.S. has an enviable record when it comes to airline safety and research. Each accident provides a teachable lesson to an industry that aims for a 100 percent record of safe flight. Atop that effort sits the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates major U.S. transport accidents and has become a vital source of research and analysis for the airline industry. Much of the scientific rationale for such things as the weight of doors and width of exit rows has come from the agency’s research. The 46-year-old NTSB also serves as a prod for the Federal Aviation Administration—and, indirectly, the airlines—through its Most Wanted List. That compilation details changes the NTSB wants implemented to increase safety across the various industries it covers.

Bachman is an associate editor for Businessweek.com.

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