Aviation Safety:

Advancements Being Pursued to Improve Airliner Cabin Occupant Safety and Health

GAO-04-33: Published: Oct 3, 2003. Publicly Released: Oct 17, 2003.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
(202) 512-4803
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Airline travel is one of the safest modes of public transportation in the United States. Furthermore, there are survivors in the majority of airliner crashes, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Additionally, more passengers might have survived if they had been better protected from the impact of the crash, smoke, or fire or better able to evacuate the airliner. As requested, GAO addressed (1) the regulatory actions that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken and the technological and operational improvements, called advancements, that are available or are being developed to address common safety and health issues in large commercial airliner cabins and (2) the barriers, if any, that the United States faces in implementing such advancements.

FAA has taken a number of regulatory actions over the past several decades to address safety and health issues faced by passengers and flight attendants in large commercial airliner cabins. GAO identified 18 completed actions, including those that require safer seats, cushions with better fire-blocking properties, better floor emergency lighting, and emergency medical kits. GAO also identified 28 advancements that show potential to further improve cabin safety and health. These advancements vary in their readiness for deployment. Fourteen are mature, currently available, and used in some airliners. Among these are inflatable lap seat belts, exit doors over the wings that swing out on hinges instead of requiring manual removal, and photoluminescent floor lighting. The other 14 advancements are in various stages of research, engineering, and development in the United States, Canada, or Europe. Several factors have slowed the implementation of airliner cabin safety and health advancements. For example, when advancements are ready for commercial use, factors that may hinder their implementation include the time it takes for (1) FAA to complete the rule-making process, (2) U.S. and foreign aviation authorities to resolve differences between their respective requirements, and (3) the airlines to adopt or install advancements after FAA has approved their use. When advancements are not ready for commercial use because they require further research, FAA's processes for setting research priorities and selecting research projects may not ensure that the limited federal funding for cabin safety and health research is allocated to the most critical and cost-effective projects. In particular, FAA does not obtain autopsy and survivor information from NTSB after it investigates a crash. This information could help FAA identify and target research to the primary causes of death and injury. In addition, FAA does not typically perform detailed analyses of the costs and effectiveness of potential cabin occupant safety and health advancements, which could help it identify and target research to the most cost-effective projects.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As recommended in GAO's report, FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) personnel met with NTSB staff to discuss the availability of aircraft accident injury information. According to FAA, both parties agreed that although the information was not available on the NTSB website, detailed injury information, assigned seats, and occupant interviews were available. NTSB staff offered to send copies of the Survival Factors Reports, including the injury chart and all other attachments to CAMI. NTSB staff also offered to facilitate CAMI visits to NTSB headquarters to review supporting documentation.

    Recommendation: To provide FAA decision makers with additional data for use in setting priorities for research on cabin occupant safety and health and in selecting competing research projects for funding, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to initiate discussions with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in an effort to obtain the autopsy and survivor information needed to more fully understand the factors affecting survival in a commercial airliner crash.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA generally agreed with the recommendation to supplement its current process by using comparable cost and effectiveness estimates to help select aviation health and safety research. In October 2005, FAA informed us that estimates of cost and effectiveness are now incorporated in the prioritization process. The Office of Aerospace Medicine, Aerospace Medical Technical Community Representative Group reviews and prioritizes all aerospace medical research requirements/initiatives including those involving cabin occupant health advancements.

    Recommendation: To provide FAA decision makers with additional data for use in setting priorities for research on cabin occupant safety and health and in selecting competing research projects for funding, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to supplement its current process by developing and using comparable estimates of cost and effectiveness for each cabin occupant safety and health advancement under consideration for research funding.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Nov 18, 2014

Oct 9, 2014

Sep 26, 2014

Sep 25, 2014

Sep 23, 2014

Sep 12, 2014

Jul 31, 2014

Jul 23, 2014

Jun 25, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here