When you board a commercial aircraft, stow your carry-on luggage and buckle in, you generally assume that your jet will taxi and take off safely, keep you comfortable during the flight and deliver you to your destination.
This comfort with commercial air travel is no accident. Since 1914, which Space.com marked as the beginning of scheduled airline passenger service, passenger safety has been central to commercial aircraft evolution.
According to the Air Safety Network (ASN), 2017 was the safest year in commercial aviation history, with just 10 fatal airline accidents and 44 airline fatalities worldwide. The New York Times reported that the April 2018 death of a passenger aboard a Southwest Airlines jet marked the first passenger fatality on a U.S. commercial airliner in more than nine years. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reveals that during that time, more than 7 billion passengers took off and landed safely.
Teamwork in Innovation
So what’s behind this remarkable safety record? It begins with a singular focus on passenger safety by commercial airlines and organizations like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — the overseer of U.S. civil aviation — and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the U.S. government agency that investigates civil transportation accidents. It plays out as new aerospace technologies and processes that beef up safety in the design, operation and maintenance of commercial aircraft.
“When there is an accident, it’s our responsibility to get to the bottom of it in an unbiased, fully transparent fashion,” said John DeLisi, director of aviation safety for the NTSB. “Our main goal is to learn the lessons from every accident and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence.”
DeLisi points to improved avionics, a better understanding of fuel tank dynamics, more rigorous aircraft maintenance processes and enhancements to cabin safety as examples of lessons learned from aircraft accidents.
Safety From the Ground Up
No commercial aircraft would fly today, for example, without something like Honeywell’s ground proximity warning system, an aerospace technology that helps jets avoid unplanned Controlled Flights into Terrain. “This is a great example of a safety system that has helped eliminate a complete category of accidents,” said DeLisi.
According to Becky Sidelinger, vice president of safety systems, Honeywell Aerospace, traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS), detailed by the National Business Aviation Association, have largely eliminated mid-air collisions between airliners. A TCAS “creates pilot awareness of all other nearby aircraft and sends directives to him on how to avoid any collisions,” she explained. Increasingly a TCAS receives its positional data from GPS satellites, which enhances precision and passenger safety.
Another example of aerospace technology making the skies safer, added Sidelinger, is Honeywell’s smart landing systems, which notify pilots if they are flying too low, too fast or even in the wrong direction as they prepare to land. “These systems are designed to prevent aircraft from overshooting or undershooting a runway, as Asiana Airlines (Flight 214) did in July 2013 on final approach to San Francisco International Airport,” she said.
You Can’t Win if You Don’t Exit
Passenger lives can also be at risk even if a jet never leaves the tarmac. A fire that erupts in the cabin prior to takeoff can be just as dangerous as a mid-air collision. That’s why commercial aircraft evolution has included a variety of NTSB-recommended upgrades to cabin safety requirements.
“Getting survivors out of a cabin quickly is an important aspect of any emergency situation,” explained DeLisi. “The biggest changes in cabin safety have come from the introduction and use of fire retardant materials on seats and internal structures such as overhead baggage compartments, walls, ceilings and cabin partitions,” he added.
Other examples of FAA-motivated safety features found in commercial cabins today include floor proximity emergency escape path lighting, lavatory smoke detectors and seats that protect passengers from injury when exposed to dynamic forces of up to 16Gs.
Window Into the Future
So how will future jetliners compare to the 787s and A380s ferrying us around the world today?
DeLisi expects to see us flying in totally autonomous commercial aircraft in a cocoon of safety, precision and great fuel economy. The new jets might be powered by electric or hybrid engines, and include more modular seating and entertainment options, but don’t look for larger windows or standing seats.
“The recent Southwest Airlines incident will (remind) us that a window is just a transparent piece of the fuselage designed to hold in the cabin pressure we need to breathe comfortably,” DeLisi said. “It’s not likely that manufacturers will be eager to sacrifice a significantly larger portion of that structure by installing large windows.”
And there’s one more pesky, unavoidable aspect of commercial air travel: turbulence.
“As smart as we are about the weather, we still want to be able to go through it and not let it disrupt our travel plans,” claimed DeLisi. “Standing up is no way to experience turbulence.”