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Crash Site Secrets
Special Report

The Next Jet Set

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Safer Cabins
One aviation trend that will be reflected not just in the A380 and 7E7 but in all new planes is modification to make crashes more survivable. Although no alteration would help a plane plunging tens of thousands of feet, "most crashes are much more benign," says Gary Frings, a crashworthiness program project manager at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). "Usually the passenger compartment remains intact."

The FAA is working with the aviation industry in an attempt to reduce the U.S. fatal aircraft accident rate by 80 percent over a 10-year period ending in 2007. An important part of this effort is developing ways to reduce injury from objects in the cabin. In many survivable accidents, according to the FAA, loose seat attachments, falling overhead bins, and ceiling panels seriously hurt or kill passengers.

"One of the major accomplishments of the FAA of the past decade has been to ensure that all transports have dynamically tested seats in them," Frings says. The FAA has upgraded its seat standards, requiring all airlines to install seats that can withstand up to 16 Gs. (A "G" is the amount of pressure exerted due to gravity. A person seated in an at-rest plane would be under 1 G of force.) The previous standard was nine Gs. The seats undergo testing with the use of dummies, simulating crash conditions in the manner of automobile crash tests. The new seats are capable of absorbing much more energy, lessening the chance that passengers will be thrown about, ejected or crushed.

"All newly certified aircraft have the 16 G seats," Frings said. "In fact, the seat manufacturers don't make the old style anymore. You couldn't get them if you wanted them. So with people replacing old seats when they need to, I would guess that 40 to 60 percent of the planes have the new kind."

The FAA is also evaluating the performance of overhead bins. Frings says manufacturers are beginning to design much safer versions that are mounted in ways that can withstand the force of a crash. "They know the FAA is serious about this."

Missile Defense
One major change being considered for commercial jets stems from a relatively new safety concern: the fear that a terrorist will fire a shoulder-launched missile at a plane as it takes off or lands. After September 11, Americans could no longer ignore the reality that terrorists can bring down a U.S. airliner and will undoubtedly try to do so again. Intelligence and weapons experts believe that shoulder-fired weapons, widely available to terrorists, can be brought into the country without detection and pose one possible threat to our airliners.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has committed $100 million in research funds to explore ways that missile-defense technology, already in use on military aircraft, could be adapted to civilian airliners. In January 2004, the department announced that three companies -- Northrop Grumman, British Aerospace, and United Airlines -- would each receive $2 million to produce plans for fitting commercial jets with the defense systems. One or more might then be chosen to build a prototype for testing and evaluation. This two-phase process is expected to take between 18 months and two years.

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United Airlines and Northwest planes taxi on a runway.
United Airlines and Northwest planes taxi on a runway.
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A fuel tank innerting system that reduces the amount of oxygen in a plane's fuel tank.
A fuel tank innerting system that reduces the amount of oxygen in a plane's fuel tank.
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