exit from the plane, improved standards are making crashes more
survivable. The Asiana crash’s statistics are no longer a rarity.
By Chelsea B. Sheasley
Christian Science Monitor
Seconds before Asiana Airlines Flight 214 hit the sea wall at San
Francisco Airport Saturday, flight attendant Lee Yoon-hye said she
felt something was wrong. But after the crash, her training instincts
kicked in as she searched the cabin and helped passengers exit — a
reaction that, coupled with advances in technology and improved safety
standards, likely contributed to far fewer fatalities than in the
past, analysts say.
“Crashes are definitely more survivable today than they were a few
decades ago,” Kevin Hiatt, president and chief executive of the Flight
Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group in Alexandria, Va. aimed at
improving air safety, told the Washington Post. “We’ve learned from
the past incidents about what can be improved.”
Nearly all passengers and crew survived the Asiana crash — 305 of the
307 people on board — and more than a third were able to leave without
hospitalization. The San Francisco coroner is investigating whether
one of the two Chinese teenagers who died Saturday was run over by an
emergency response vehicle.
The statistics aren’t a rarity in the world of recent plane crashes.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, “Everyone survived a 2008
Continental Airlines flight that veered off a Denver runway in high
winds, splitting the body of the jet in two. Two passengers died in
August 2010 when an Aires Boeing 737 landed short in bad weather at a
Caribbean island, also splitting the passenger cabin into pieces. In
April, a newly delivered Lion Air Boeing 737 crashed in poor
visibility short of a runway in Bali, Indonesia; all 108 people aboard
Analysts say the result is due to in part to better technology and
safety standards, as well as improved crew training.
In the late 1980s, regulators required that all new passenger planes
have seats able to withstand impacts that thrust them forward at 16
times the force of gravity. In 2005 the Federal Aviation
Administration ordered the standard be applied to almost all passenger
planes by October 2009. A Boeing spokesman told the Wall Street
Journal that the company has been delivering all its jets with
16g-rated seats since 2009.
“Before the advent of such stronger seats,” Mr. Hiatt told the Wall
Street Journal, the intense vertical and horizontal force generated by
a crash like Saturday’s “would have caused many more seats to break
free and pancake into each other, probably blocking exit paths.”
Other technological advances included better materials for the
fuselage, Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing and now a
director of the Airsafe.com Foundation, told the Washington Post. “It
may have been worse if that fuselage had been designed with practices
that were common 20 or 30 years prior.”
Another key factor is better crew training to get passengers off a
plane before it burns, said John Hansman, an aerospace professor at
MIT and director of the International Center for Air Transportation.
Mr. Hansman told USA Today that a crucial safety requirement is that
airlines must certify they can get passengers off a plane within 90
seconds in an emergency, even if half the doors and escape slides are
blocked. But getting people to leave their luggage and laptops can be
a problem, Hansman said.
“If people had dawdled getting off this airplane, that would have put
them at increased risk,” Hansman said.
The use of better fire-resistant materials on seats and other parts of
the cabin also contribute to fires burning with less intensity at
first, allowing crucial time for evacuation, according to Mr. Hiatt of
the Flight Safety Foundation.
Two fatal aircraft fires in the 1980s spurred the aviation industry to
set stricter standards, Bill Waldock, a professor of safety science at
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz. campus, told
the Washington Post.
In 1983, an Air Canada flight made a safe emergency landing at the
Cincinnati airport, but half of the 46 passengers and crew members
died when they couldn’t escape the smoke and fire quickly. In 1985, a
similar incident occurred after a British Airtours aborted takeoff in
“Those two accidents together were the two-by-four to the head” that
led the US and British governments to impose new fire-safety
standards, said Mr. Waldock.
Ms. Lee, the flight attendant on Saturday’s flight, said at a press
conference at the San Francisco airport that once the crash ended, “I
wasn’t really thinking, but my body started carrying out the steps
needed for an evacuation.”
“I was only thinking about rescuing the next passenger,” she said.
Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the Boeing 777
to crash on the runway after a last-second attempt to abort the
landing, and what role the pilot’s inexperience with the type of
aircraft may have played.
The two fatalities from Saturday’s crash were both Chinese teen-age
girls. Of the 182 injured people taken to hospitals, six remained in
critical condition late Sunday, according to CBS. The remaining 133
had minor to moderate injuries, while many of the other passengers or
crew members had more minor injuries that didn’t require extra