NTSB weighs benefits of air bags for small planes

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Air bags and shoulder-lap seatbelts have been saving lives in automobile crashes for decades. Now federal safety officials are asking whether it’s time aviation caught up.

The National Transportation Safety Board is considering whether some planes should be equipped with air bags and shoulder belts.

The board was set to release a study Tuesday of 138 accidents involving general aviation planes equipped with air bags. It is expected to highlight several cases in which air bags were critical to the survival of the pilot or passengers.

General aviation aircraft range from single-engine propeller planes to multi-engine business jets to helicopters. The category includes all aircraft except scheduled airline service and military aircraft.

AmSafe Inc. of Phoenix, the only U.S. maker of air bags for planes, 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, Joseph Smith, an AmSafe manager, said in an interview.

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

Air bags have been required in cars since the mid-1990s, and shoulder harness seatbelts even longer – but not in small planes.

Unlike automobile air bags, AmSafe air bags are integrated into the shoulder harness of airplane seatbelts. The NTSB repeatedly has recommended since 1970 that the Federal Aviation Administration require 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 general aviation planes registered in the U.S. The overwhelming majority of planes predate the introduction of the air bags in 2004. The market for used planes far exceeds the market for new aircraft.

AmSafe doesn’t make air bags for helicopters, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be possible, Smith said.