Survival at SFO

Like most people, when I saw the raw footage of the airplane crash at SFO on Saturday, I couldn’t believe that anyone had walked away from it. But it looks like only two people died. Two more will be paralyzed while another 30 are still hospitalized. The WSJ has a great short article on how such an awful-looking crash resulting in so mercifully few casualties. First, there were the heroes:

Mr. Rah noticed that an evacuation slide had inflated inside the plane, pinning a flight attendant against the interior cabin wall. He and another passenger tried to free the attendant, looking for something sharp with which to puncture the slide. Another passenger eventually found a way to let the air out of the slide. Mr. Rah said he has been in touch with the flight attendant’s husband, who said she sustained serious injuries but is improving.

The captain soon started screaming on the loudspeaker for everyone to evacuate. As other passengers began exiting the plane and emergency crews arrived, Mr. Rah saw another flight attendant, whose name he gave as Jiyeon Kim, carrying injured passengers down the aisle to get them off the plane.

“She was a hero,” he said. “This tiny, little girl was carrying people piggyback, running everywhere, with tears running down her face. She was crying, but she was still so calm and helping people.”

Meanwhile, San Francisco police officers at the scene had entered the plane from near the back and made their way to the front, amid worsening smoke, said Lyn Tomioka, deputy chief at the San Francisco Police Department. When they got to the front, male crew members trying to help passengers called out for knives, and the officers tossed their own knives to the men to help them cut seat belts off passengers who were struggling to get out, Ms. Tomioka said.

Click the link and check out the picture of Jiyeon Kim, who looks about 5′ 2″ and maybe weighs 100 lbs on a good day. This young woman was carrying wounded passengers off the plane until it literally went up in flames. Those pretty ladies aren’t just on those planes to serve drinks. They’re trained for this sort of thing. And they almost always come through.

There’s another aspect: regulation.

Regulators in the late 1980s mandated all-new passenger planes must have seats able to withstand stronger impacts than in the past—practices that the Federal Aviation Administration ordered in 2005 be applied to nearly all passenger planes by October 2009. As part of those rules, seats on jetliners must be able in tests to survive collisions that slam them forward at 16 times the force of gravity, or 16g, to ensure the seats don’t collapse or detach from the floor. A Boeing spokesman said the company has been delivering all its jets with 16g-rated seats since 2009.

Before the advent of such stronger seats, Mr. Hiatt said, 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.”

Mr. Hiatt also said improved fire-resistant materials used on seats and other parts of the cabin “likely helped the fire from intensifying so quickly.”

Some of this safety has come from the market — Boeing specifically designed the 777 to be evacuated in 90 seconds even if half the doors were blocked. Neither airlines nor airplane builders want people to die. But the regulations have proven a critical push to go above and beyond. We’ve had multiple planes hit and break apart with minimal casualties because of the tougher design of the seats specifically.

Because of the vergence of these trends — better engineering, better regulation, better training and faster emergency response, air travel is now light years safer than any form of travel in human history. Since 2000, while airline travel has ramped up, less than a 1000 people have died on American airplanes while nearly half a million have been killed on the nation’s highways. If you exclude 9/11, you’re talking about 20 people per year. In short, you’re more likely to die falling on the curb on the way to the airport than you are on the plane. Globally, 2012 saw the fewest deaths in the sky since 1945 when the Fw 190 was the state of the art.

Capitalistic self-interest, professionalism, prosperity, training and a bit of sensible regulation. Funny how well that works, isn’t it?

Comments are closed.

  1. AlexInCT

    I will not be surprised that we eventually find out that this accident happened because the far more epxerienced co-pilot was not able to tell the captain, whom had fewer flight hours and a serious experience deficit flying this type of aircraft, that he was doing things wrong. Sucks for the people involved, including the pilot. No technological solution will address this issue BTW.

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  2. Seattle Outcast

    Human error, one way or another is nearly always the cause of the crash. And for those of you that remember the famous Alaska Airline jackscrew incident – that was a maintenance asshole that was being cheap/lazy. If the part had been inspected properly it would have been replaced and that crash would never have happened.

    However, expect the “deep pockets theory” to come into play: there will be many lawsuits, many of them aimed at Boeing for not building a crash-proof airplane or some other such idiocy. Scapegoats will be found, like always, and the innocent will be punished for standing in the wrong place on the wrong day.

    In the long run, the fact that there are a metric shitload of pilots with too little experience will not be addressed. The airlines are not going to go without pilots, shortage or not.

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