July 11, 2013
In the history of aviation accidents, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 will be remembered for the stunning images of the crash, the two teenagers who died and the more than 180 people who were injured. To anyone aboard the aircraft, it had to have been terrifying as the plane clipped and broke apart before skidding off the runway and catching fire.
And yet Flight 214 will be remembered most for how many people on the plane were able to get to safety, even walk away.
The death toll could have been much higher. It wasn’t, partly due to the competence and courage of the flight attendants who acted quickly to get people down the emergency exits. One diminutive crew member was seen with tears streaming down her face as she carried a passenger on her back.
Passengers stepped up as well, with some freeing a flight attendant pinned by an inflatable slide and others helping travelers trapped in their seats. Police and firefighters rushed onto the plane as it was about to erupt in flames — putting their own lives on the line, as they so often do, in order to save people they don’t know.
The reason so many passengers were able to escape ahead of the fire was not good luck but advanced technology: Fire-resistant materials kept it from spreading rapidly through the cabin, affording precious time.
Stricter standards for seats, imposed in recent years by the Federal Aviation Administration, made them less likely to break loose or disintegrate on impact. Planes are built so that everyone can get out within 90 seconds — even if half the doors won’t open.
When asked whether it was a “miracle” for so many passengers to survive, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board demurred. “This was a survivable accident,” said Chairman Deborah Hersman, who proceeded to emphasize: “The majority of airline crashes are survivable.”
That wasn’t always the case. But an even bigger change is that planes so rarely crash. The number of accidents per 100,000 hours flown has dropped sharply over the past decade and a half.
Fatal accidents have fallen even faster. In 1996, 340 people died in two crashes in this country. But until Saturday, there had not been a fatal accident in U.S. commercial aviation since 2009, when a Colgan Air turboprop plunged to earth in New York, killing 50. In February, MIT statistics professor Arnold Barnett told The New York Times that over the previous five years, the death rate for U.S. air travelers was one for every 45 million flights.
How did this improvement come about? Navigation devices have made it less likely that planes will slam into mountains or each other. Airplane engines are more dependable. Regulators and airlines have learned to work together to find the cause of every mishap with an eye toward preventing crashes.
Some things are known about what happened at San Francisco International Airport: The jetliner was flying more slowly than it should have been on its approach, and pilots didn’t realize the danger until it was too late to abort the landing. But it remains to be determined if one of them was at fault.
In time, the answers will emerge. And it’s a good bet that they will be put to use making a highly safe aviation system even safer.