Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Stop Squeezing Them In

The NTSB wants the FAA to change the regs governing required seats and seat belts

SEAT BELT SAFETY. After several incidents involving passengers who were unrestrained or improperly restrained, the NTSB has recommended that seat belt regulations be stricter.
Remember the circus act in which a dozen clowns get out of the smallest car you’ve ever seen drive into the center ring? In theory, if you could find enough lightweight compact clowns, you could do something similar with even a four-seat airplane without violating regulations. To avoid incurring the wrath of the FAA, you’d have to be sure that you don’t go over the aircraft’s maximum gross weight and don’t violate any manufacturer’s limitations regarding seat structure and weight capacity, seat belt ratings or number of aircraft occupants. The NTSB has been trying for years to get the FAA to close what it sees as safety loopholes allowing more people on board than there are seats or seat belts, and renewed its efforts in 2010.

After an accident on March 22, 2009, involving a single-engine Pilatus PC-12/45, the NTSB asked the FAA for clarification about the intent of regulation 14 CFR 91.107 that concerns occupant seats and occupant restraints. The Pilatus was on an IFR personal flight from Oroville, Calif., to Gallatin Field in Bozeman, Mont. It had diverted to Butte, Mont., but crashed short of runway 33 at Bert Mooney Airport. Visual conditions prevailed at the time of the accident. The pilot and all 13 passengers were killed. The airplane was equipped with only two cockpit seats and eight passenger seats. Two of the passenger seats faced aft, and the other six passenger seats faced forward. All the seats were equipped with lap belts and shoulder harnesses. Among the passengers were six adults and seven children, ages one through nine years. Investigators believe four of the children thrown from the airplane likely were unrestrained or improperly restrained. The accident investigation was ongoing when, in January, 2010, the FAA responded to the request for clarification of its seating/restraint policy. It told the Safety Board that multiple (two or more) occupants are allowed to share one seat and one restraint system as long as “the seat usage conformed with the limitations contained in the approved portion of the Airplane Flight Manual [AFM]” and “the belt was approved and rated for such use.”

In August, 1971, the FAA amended its safety belt regulations by stating, “ is not intended that separate seats nor separate safety belts be required for operations under Part 91.” The regulations then said, “During the takeoff and landing of U.S. registered civil aircraft…each person on board that aircraft must occupy a seat or berth with a safety belt properly secured around him [or her]. However, a person who has not reached his [or her] second birthday may be held by an adult who is occupying a seat or berth.”

In June, 1990, the FAA issued an interpretation that said that as long as approved safety belts are carried aboard the aircraft for all occupants, and the structural strength requirements for the seats aren’t exceeded, the seating of two persons whose combined weight doesn’t exceed 170 pounds under one safety belt where the belt can be properly secured around both persons wouldn’t be a violation of the regulations under Part 91.

In August, 1990, the FAA revised Part 91. The section “Use of Safety Belts, Shoulder Harnesses, and Child Restraint Systems” stated, in part, that each person on board a U.S.-registered civil aircraft “must occupy an approved seat or berth with a safety belt and, if installed, shoulder harness, properly secured about him or her during movement on the surface, takeoff, and landing.”

Current regulations allow that a person who hasn’t reached his or her second birthday may “be held by an adult who is occupying an approved seat or berth, provided that the person being held...does not occupy or use any restraining device.” It also allows for a person to “occupy an approved child restraint system.”


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