Asiana 214: Why the Death Toll Was So Low

By Jonathan Spira on 8 July 2013
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How Safer Planes and Passenger and Crew Heroics Limited Fatalities

The crash site in San Francisco

The crash site in San Francisco

Anyone looking at the first images of the Asiana Boeing 777 after it crash landed in San Francisco on Saturday had to wonder if anyone could possibly have come out alive.  But over one hundred passengers walked out of the aircraft on their own and, out of a total of 307 passengers and crew, only two people didn’t survive.

The fact is that today’s aircraft are far safer thanks to the efforts of airplane manufacturers, airlines, and regulators seeking to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities that typically would accompany crashes.  These measures range from new seat designs that withstand tremendous force, to the extensive use of flame-retardant materials, as well as new training for crews for such exigencies.

Underneath, the plane’s wheels are designed to break away, while the fuselage has been significantly strengthened as well.

In addition, an aircraft manufacturer must be able to certify that passengers and crew can evacuate the plane within 90 seconds in an emergency, even in cases where half of the doors and slides are rendered inaccessible.

Beginning in the 1980s, new airplanes were required to come equipped with seats that were capable of withstanding a far stronger impact than had previously been called for.  In 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration updated the rule to require that all aircraft – not just new planes – have such seats by 2009.  The seats needed to withstand tests that slammed them forward at 16 times the force of gravity without collapsing or detaching from the floor.

Before these changes, aircraft seats often broke free, blocking exit paths and entrapping passengers trying to escape.

When it comes to evacuating the aircraft, passengers are given very specific instructions by cabin crew members, who have drilled and rehearsed the procedure every year. The script varies by airline but essentially can be paraphrased as “Jump! Jump! Don’t take anything with you!”

Initial photographs from the scene of the crash of Asiana flight 214 show some passengers leaving the aircraft with some carry-on luggage despite this practice. It’s not clear yet as to whether the passengers didn’t hear these instructions or chose to ignore them.  Aviation experts consider taking carry-on luggage during an evacuation to be dangerous because it will slow the 90-second process down and could result in someone not getting out in time.

Indeed, the fatality rate today of 0.2 for every one million departures means that air travel is safer than other modes of transportation – including escalators, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

There were several other factors in flight 214’s favor on Saturday.  Because the aircraft was landing, it was moving fairly slowly, which reduced the force with which it crashed.  In addition, the rescue crews at San Francisco International Airport arrived at the scene equipped with literally cutting-edge equipment, including tools that allowed them to cut into the aircraft’s fuselage and hoses equipped with cameras at the end that allowed the firefights to find the most dangerous hotspots.

In addition, passengers and crew members stopped to help others exit the aircraft, in some cases having to cut off seat belts and, in one case, deflating an evacuation slide which had pinned a flight attendant against an interior wall of the plane.

The result was that passengers not only walked away from the burning aircraft but were able to stop, take pictures, and post them on the Internet, including David Eun, a passenger on the flight, who posted a picture of the downed Asiana jetliner from ground level on Twitter. The image showed passengers walking away from the aircraft.  His tweet succinctly stated: “I just crash landed at SFO. Tail ripped off. Most everyone seems fine. I’m ok.”

(Photo: NSTB)

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