Call for air bags and full belts in planes

Joan Lowy

US federal safety officials are considering whether planes should be equipped with air bags and shoulder harness seatbelts -- life-saving technology that has benefitted motorists for decades.

The National Transportation Safety Board is set to release a study of 138 accidents involving general aviation planes equipped with air bags. General aviation aircraft range from single-engine propeller planes to multiengine business jets to helicopters. The category includes all aircraft except scheduled airline service and military aircraft.

The report is expected to highlight several cases in which air bags were critical to the survival of the pilot or passengers.

US firm AmSafe Inc, the only maker of air bags for planes, said it has documented 20 cases over the past several years in which its air bags were important to the survival of general aviation pilots and passengers.

There were 474 people killed in 1,474 general aviation accidents in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available.

Unlike automobile air bags, AmSafe air bags are integrated into the shoulder harness of airplane seatbelts. The NTSB has repeatedly recommended since 1970 that the Federal Aviation Administration requires general aviation planes be equipped with combination lap-shoulder seatbelts. However, the FAA has not followed those recommendations.

Most new general aviation planes sold today have both lap-shoulder belts and air bags. But NTSB officials say that accounts for only about 7,000 planes out of more than 200,000 such planes registered in the US.