Rear-facing seats and redesigned seatbelts could give passengers more protection, and improve survival rates in air accidents, an aviation expert has suggested.
Doctors treating survivors of last weekend’s plane crash in San Francisco, in which two people died and 181 were hurt, have urged manufacturers to consider introducing three-point seatbelts after a number of passengers suffered spinal injuries. Other commentators have suggested that aircraft designers consider installing rear-facing seats, as they provide better support for the back, neck and head in the event of sudden deceleration.
David Learmount, operations and safety editor at the aviation news website FlightGlobal.com and a former RAF pilot and flight instructor, agreed that in the event of a crash rear-facing seats were safer, but he warned that airlines would be unlikely to support such changes due to costs and customer preference
“Lots of research has been done into it and the RAF has rear-facing seats on its transport aircraft because it is proven to be safer,” he said.
“The costs would be prohibitive to airlines, however. During an impact, the passenger’s centre of gravity would be higher and the seat would be taking more of the strain – therefore the seat itself, the fittings and the floor of the aircraft would need to be strengthened. That would increase the weight of the aircraft, which would increase fuel consumption.”
He said the same issue would apply with the introduction of three-point seatbelts, as the centre of gravity would move from the waist to the shoulder.
He added: “From a safety point of view, they are attractive ideas, but can you imagine an airline like Ryanair supporting it?”
The low-cost airline has gone to great lengths to reduce the weight of its planes, cutting the size of its in-flight magazine, serving passengers less ice and even asking cabin crew to watch their figures. Last year Michael O’Leary, hoping to gain support for “standing room only” cabins, even suggested that seatbelts did “nothing” to prevent the death of passengers in a plane crash.
Mr O'Leary also claimed that rear-facing seats would face opposition from passengers.
“People wouldn’t want them,” he said. “British European Airways used to fly Trident jets with both forward- and rear-facing seats – and people would kill for a seat facing the front. On trains it’s always the forward-facing seats that are worn out.”
Research into the issue of seat design includes a 1952 report by Naval Aviation News which suggested passengers in transport planes were ten times more likely to survive in a backward facing seat, and a 1983 paper entitled “Impact Protection in Air Transport Passenger Seat Design” by Richard Snyder, a scientist at the University of Michigan. He concluded that “data appears to overwhelmingly substantiate that the seated occupant can tolerate much higher crash forces when oriented in the rearward-facing position.”
Another proponent of changes to the industry standard is Bern Case, director at Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport in Oregon. He campaigned for the introduction of rear-facing seats throughout the Nineties and was recently interviewed by Air and Space Magazine about the issue. “Airlines say passengers wouldn’t like to face backward. But military airplanes and corporate jets have them and no problems are ever reported,” he said.
Despite the number of injuries sustained by those on board the Asiana Airlines flight that crashed in San Francisco, Mr Learmount said the fact that 305 people on board the Boeing 777 survived was a “testament to modern aircraft manufacturing”.
“I wonder how many would have died if a Boeing 707 had crashed in the same way,” he said. He also cited the British Airways flight – also involving a 777 – in 2008 that crash landed short of the runway at Heathrow, but which saw no fatalities, and the “Miracle of the Hudson” a year later, when a US Airways flight was forced to ditch in the Hudson River, also without casualties, as other examples of how far aircraft design had advanced.
An Associated Press analysis of National Transportation Safety Board data this week found that from 1962 to 1981, 54 per cent of people in US plane crashes were killed. From 1982 to 2009, that figure improved to 39 per cent, with stronger planes, sturdier seats, improved exits, fire retardant material and better training said to be responsible.