Honorable Deborah Hersman, NTSB Board Member

Opening Statement
Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board
Safety Study Airbag Performance in General Aviation Restraint Systems
January 11, 2011


Good Morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Debbie Hersman, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Joining me are my fellow Board members, Vice Chairman Chris Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind and Member Earl Weener. Today we meet in open session, as required by the Government in Sunshine Act, to consider the Safety Study on Airbag Performance in General Aviation Restraint Systems.

The Board Members have had the opportunity to read the study; however, today is the first time that all of us are meeting together to discuss it. Staff has prepared 5 presentations, each of which will be followed by a round of questions from the Board members. We will then consider the safety study's conclusions and proposed safety recommendations. These are the Board's actual deliberations on the study; therefore the study may be revised as a result of our discussions this morning. Approximately 30 minutes after we conclude, an abstract of this study will be available from the NTSB Public Affairs office and posted on the NTSB's website.

Despite the decline in General Aviation (GA) accidents over the past 30 years, GA continues to have the highest accident rates within civil aviation. A GA aircraft is nearly 5 times more likely to be in an accident than a small commuter or air taxi operation and 40 times more likely than a large transport operation. And, when there is an accident, there's a higher risk of death or serious injury. In 2009, 477 lives were lost in GA accidents and 275 occupants were seriously injured. Unfortunately, the proportion of people killed or seriously injured in GA crashes has changed very little since the early 1980's.

While the Safety Board has a long history of issuing recommendations on the crashworthiness of general aviation aircraft, today we will hear about a relatively new technology in aircraft airbags. While airbags have been standard equipment in automobiles for many years, they were not certificated for use on GA aircraft until 2003, and not offered by GA airplane manufacturers as standard or optional equipment until 2005 just 6 years ago.

Airbags are not required on GA aircraft, and I applaud the over 30 manufacturers who have voluntarily adopted these safety technologies. The good news is that airbags are now included as standard equipment in the pilot and co-pilot seats of over half of the newly manufactured single-engine GA airplanes. And they're certificated on over 100 aircraft types, including the popular Cirrus and Cessna models.

Because of these voluntary efforts, today there are nearly 18,000 airbag-equipped seats on over 7,000 GA aircraft. However, because the average GA airplane is about 40 years old, less than 5% of the active GA fleet is airbag-equipped.

This morning, our staff will discuss in more depth the real-world performance of airbags in GA aircraft accidents studied over a 3-year period (2006-2009) with a focus on the protection provided by the aviation airbag systems. Our team also looked at safety issues identified with restraint systems. Finally, their recent work underscores a lesson the Safety Board has long understood that restraint systems consisting of a lap belt/shoulder harness combination better protect the occupants of GA aircraft, than a lap belt alone. We will address this simple, low-tech issue again today.