What is the problem?
We’ve investigated aviation accidents in which people have died or
suffered serious injuries because they were not wearing seat belts
or shoulder harnesses, or children were not secured in their own
seat by a child safety restraint system.
According to the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA), proper shoulder
belt use in small aircraft would
reduce major injuries and fatalities
if an accident or incident were to
occur. In commercial aviation, the
FAA still exempts the most vulnerable
passengers—children under age 2—
from having to be secured in their
own seat, allowing them to travel
unrestrained on an adult’s lap. Our investigations have shown that
children under age 2 are at risk of serious injury and death when they
are not restrained by a child safety system and in their own seat.
We have also seen deaths and injuries due to inadequate evacuation
procedures and crashworthiness. In March 2015, Delta Air Lines
flight 1086 departed the runway while landing at LaGuardia Airport
in New York and contacted the airport perimeter fence, coming to
rest with the airplane’s nose on an embankment next to Flushing
Bay. The airplane was substantially damaged, including the
interphone and public address system. As a result, flight attendants
left their assigned emergency exit locations to communicate with
passengers and the flight crew and could not immediately open their
assigned exit. This significantly delayed evacuation.
On July 3, 2015, an Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3e helicopter crashed
into a parking lot after lifting off from the Summit Medical Center
Heliport in Frisco, Colorado, fatally injuring the pilot and seriously
injuring two flight nurses. Contributing to the severity of the injuries
was the helicopter’s fuel system, which was not crash resistant and
facilitated a fuel-fed, postcrash fire.
What can be done?
Seat belts and restraints reduce the risk of injury and death to pilots
and passengers in the event of an accident. To minimize deaths and
injuries, we must increase the use of existing restraint systems.
Additionally, even when occupants use appropriate restraints, deaths
and injuries may still occur because of inadequate evacuation
procedures or crashworthiness, such as fuel tanks that fail to meet
current crashworthiness standards. In many cases, otherwise
survivable crashes turn fatal because a postcrash fuel-tank explosion
causes a catastrophic fire.
To improve occupant protection in aviation, the
following actions should be taken:
Aircraft Owners and Operators
- Install shoulder harness systems in all general aviation aircraft.
- Properly train commercial flight and cabin crews in procedures
to conduct timely and professional evacuations when conditions
warrant. Consider joint evacuation exercises for flight and cabin crews
to resolve these issues.
- The Association of Critical Care Transport, Association of Air
Medical Services, and the Air Medical Operators Association should
establish a working group and provide guidance regarding equipment
and systems that would enhance helicopter crashworthiness,
including, at a minimum, a crash-resistant fuel system and energy
- Require all general aviation airplanes that are not currently equipped
with shoulder harnesses to be retrofitted in accordance with Advisory
Circular 21-34, issued June 4, 1993.
- Remove the exemption that allows for children to be lap-held on
commercial aviation flights. Children are safest when they are properly
secured in a child safety seat, in their own seat, when flying.
- Prioritize approval of a retrofit kit to incorporate a crash-resistant
fuel system into AS350 B3e and similarly designed variants to
accelerate its availability to operators.
- Issue a special airworthiness information bulletin informing all
owners and operators of AS350 B3e and similarly designed variants of
the availability of a crash-resistant fuel system retrofit kit and urging
that it be installed as soon as practicable.
- Issue a special airworthiness information bulletin that is periodically
updated to inform all helicopter owners and operators about available
modifications to improve fuel system crashworthiness, and urge that
they be installed as soon as practicable.
- General aviation pilots should use shoulder restraints whenever
possible (and ensure their passengers—including small children—
do, too). Three-point shoulder harnesses can be very effective in
- Wear a seat belt at all times during a flight.
- If you’re flying with children, use an FAA-approved child car seat
or safety restraint system. All children, including those under age 2,
should be properly restrained in their own seat. Holding an infant in a
lap during flight is not a sufficient safety measure.
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