NPR Story
6:41 pm
Mon July 15, 2013

Plane Crash Exposes Seat Belt Differences

Originally published on Fri July 12, 2013 12:20 pm

The Asiana Airlines flight that crashed in San Francisco had different seat belts for different classes of passengers: lap belts in economy and three-point seat belts in first class.

So why didn’t every seat have the three-point harnesses — the type found in cars?

The thing with restraint systems is, the more restraints you have, the better off you’re going to be in an impact situation.
–Anthony Brickhouse

“In the general aviation world, three-point seat restraints are very common,” Anthony Brickhouse, an associate professor of aerospace and aviation safety at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, told Here & Now. “They are less common in the commercial aviation world. The thing with restraint systems is, the more restraints you have, the better off you’re going to be in an impact situation.”

While the three-point belts are the obvious choice in terms of safety, there are other factors in choosing restraints for commercial airlines.

“Financial considerations are always something that have to be taken into consideration. Passenger comfort is also something that has to be taken into consideration. But from my perspective, every day you get in your personal vehicle you have on a three-point harness. So for me, having a three-point harness in an airliner would not be any level of discomfort,” said Brickhouse.

The evolution in airline safety has already gone past the three-point seat belt. Some flight training aircraft are also equipped with airbags.

“In the event of an impact, the airbag would come out almost like it would in your passenger vehicles. So basically it would cushion the blow, and anything we can do to cushion the blow for passengers is going to increase the likelihood of survivability.”

With the ongoing investigation of what caused the Asiana Airlines flight to crash land, new safety standards may emerge to help prevent future crash deaths and injuries.

Guest:

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. The wreckage from Asiana Flight 214 is finally being removed from the runway at San Francisco International Airport. Investigators are still looking into what caused that crash. One thing we do know is that the plane was equipped with two different kinds of seat belts: lap belts in economy and three-point belts in business class.

And passengers who had those three-point belts say that extra harness protected them against further injury during the crash. Anthony Brickhouse is associate professor of aerospace and aviation safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. And Anthony, how common are these three-point belts?

ANTHONY BRICKHOUSE: Well, in the general aviation world, three-point seat restraints are fairly common. They are less common in the commercial aviation world. The thing with restraint systems is the more restraints you have, the better off you're going to be in an impact situation.

HOBSON: So why don't airlines just put these three-point seatbelts all throughout the plane?

BRICKHOUSE: That is a good question, but no one seems to know the exact reason. Financial considerations are always something that have to be taken into consideration. Passenger comfort is something that would have to be taken into consideration. But from my perspective, every day you get in your personal vehicle you have on a three-point harness.

So for me, you know, having a three-point harness in an airliner would not be any level of discomfort.

HOBSON: And I know that researchers at Embry, where you are, are going even a step further than this and talking about putting airbags on airplanes. Tell us about that.

BRICKHOUSE: Yes, in some of our flight training aircraft at the Daytona Beach and Prescott campus of Embry-Riddle, we actually have a restraint system in the aircraft that is a three-point harness that actually has an inflatable bladder inside of the restraint system.

So in the event of an impact, the airbag would come out almost like it would in your passenger vehicles to basically cushion the blow. And anything that we can do to cushion the blow for passengers is going to increase the likelihood of survivability.

HOBSON: Do you think that following the crash in San Francisco that seatbelts are going to be a part of what we learn from that and what's changed in aviation going forward?

BRICKHOUSE: The majority of the safety developments that we have today come from previous accidents. The NTSB does an amazing job of investigating these accidents and making recommendations. We might see something to the extent of a recommendation regarding three-point harnesses or maybe airbags and restraint systems on commercial airliners.

HOBSON: That's Anthony Brickhouse, associate professor of aerospace and aviation safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.