Upgraded Seats Need Improved Belts and Latches

As of 27 October 2009 all airliners built for regular scheduled service must feature passenger seats built to a higher standard of crashworthiness. Specifically, the seats must withstand “G” forces of up to 16G, as opposed to the 9G seats found on many airliners.

The human body can withstand up to 40Gs, so the rule means more passengers are likely to survive a crash landing, as their seats won’t rip out of the floor or collapse when exposed to the extreme forces of deceleration often attendant to a crash landing.

Some airliners are already equipped with the upgraded seats, and they are making a difference. For example, the US Air jet that crashed into the Hudson River, practically a brand new Airbus A320, was outfitted with 16G seats. The flight attendant jump seats were also of the 16G variety. All occupants were kept safely restrained as the airplane touched down on the water, a landing one stewardess described as “violent.”

Part of the rear fuselage collapsed, but it appears that the seats held firm. Other things can be done to improve occupant safety. Before we come to that, first a question: why did it take so long to put the 16G seat rule into effect? We’re talking 22 years to get this initiative accomplished.

The effort to improve the aircraft seat began as a requirement under then-Senator Howard Metzenbaum’s (D-OH) amendment to the Airport & Airway Safety and Capacity Expansion Act of 1987. That legislation required the FAA to “initiate rulemaking … to consider all seats on board all air carrier aircraft to meet improved crashworthiness standards based upon the best available testing standards” within 120 days of the passage of the Act, which was 30 December 1987.

In its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, issued in May 1988, the FAA said it was pursuing “with renewed vigor” the effort to retrofit improved seats in the air transportation fleet. The proposed upgraded certification standards would require more sophisticated and complex testing. Rather than the static pull tests used to certify 9G seats, the 16G seats were subjected to a process called dynamic testing, which more accurately reflected the sudden loads imparted by a crash landing.

From 1988 to the mid-to-late 1990s the FAA collected public comments, held industry meetings, and sponsored a public meeting to further discuss this important safety improvement.

In 1998, ten years after the FAA proposed but never issued a final rule to require installation of 16G seats on existing airliners, the docket was reopened for public comment. Subsequently, on 4 October 2002, the FAA published a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPRM) requiring 16G seats; on or after 14 years from the effective date of this SNPRM, all airliners had to be fitted with the upgraded seats (to include flight attendant jump seats). This was known as the retrofit requirement.

The FAA issued the final rule on “Improved Seats in Air Carrier Transport Category Airplanes” on 27 September 2005. All newly manufactured airliners must meet the improved standard for cabin occupant safety.

Yet the airline industry still lags behind the automobile industry when it comes to occupant safety. Automobiles feature air bags and 3-point restraints – a shoulder belt in addition to the traditional lap belt. Although air bags could be installed on airliners, let’s forget that for a moment and concentrate instead on the restraining belt. A three point restraint, as in your car, would provide added protection in an airliner, by spreading the force of deceleration throughout the upper torso – as opposed to concentrating the forces exclusively across the lap, with the resultant likelihood of internal injuries.

Note that the flight attendants sitting in their jump seats have a four point restraint – two shoulder belts plus the lap belt. Passengers ought to have protection at least comparable to the belts in their car.

Oh, and the buckle needs to be the same. Recall that the airliner seat belt is affixed by pushing the belt into the latching mechanism – like your car – but it’s released by lifting a lever, whereas on your car there’s a push-button release. Passengers evacuating an aircraft have been confused by the airline belt release mechanism. In some cases, they have found it difficult in the confined space of an airline seat to release the lever. The simple push button found on a car seat belt would ease the confusion and speed evacuation.

Three point belts and a common buckle design. That would be the next logical step in cabin occupant safety. And, just to see if it could be done, let’s halve the 22 years to get improved seats and get all airliners to be so equipped within 11 years. That’s by 2020 – surely enough time to get the job done.