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, “...it 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.”
In a Safety Recommendation released in August, 2010, the NTSB told the FAA that it continues to believe that Part 91 regulations don’t promote effective protection for aircraft occupants because when seats and restraint systems are shared, it’s less likely that people can withstand deceleration forces during a survivable crash. The Safety Board pointed to research conducted by the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority (similar to our FAA) that documented problems with two passengers using a seat and restraint system designed for one adult passenger. The CAA ran tests to see what happened when two children of similar or different ages occupied an aircraft seat designed for one adult passenger and were restrained under the same lap belt. They found that when seated side by side, both children faced increased risk of receiving head injuries during impact. The risk of body injuries went up because of the interaction of their bodies with each other. There was increased loading of the lap belt resulting in more severe abdominal injuries. The risk of serious or fatal injuries dramatically increased when one child was seated on the other child’s lap and both were restrained by the same lap belt.
FAR Parts 121 and 135 applying to airlines and charter operators require separate seats and restraints for each passenger two years and older. The NTSB suggests that addition of such a requirement to Part 91 regulations would help ensure the proper use of seating and restraint systems. For survivable accidents, the agency says, Part 91 airplane occupants would be afforded better crash protection if each seat and restraint system was limited to only one occupant. Therefore, the NTSB called on the FAA to change the rules to require separate seats and restraints for every occupant.
The NTSB said that the FAA’s own website emphasizes that the safest place for a child under two years of age during turbulence or an emergency is in an approved child restraint system and not on an adult’s lap. The Safety Board contends that not requiring use of a restraint system for children under the age of two could affect the survivability of these occupants in Part 91 aircraft accidents and incidents. It wants the FAA to require that children younger than two be restrained in a separate seat position by an appropriate child restraint system during takeoff, landing and turbulence.
The NTSB reminded the FAA that in the July 19, 1989, crash of United Airlines flight 232 during an attempted emergency landing at Sioux City, Iowa, four children, ages 11 months to 26 months, were being held by adults. A 23-month-old child was killed, and the other three children received minor injuries. The parents of the four lap-held children were instructed to place their children on the cabin floor and hold them in that position while the adults assumed the protective brace position. After the accident, three of the parents reported that they were unable to hold onto their children during the accident sequence. Of the 296 airplane occupants, 111 were killed, 47 received serious injuries, 125 received minor injuries, and 13 weren’t injured.
On June 3, 2008, a Socata TBM-700 received substantial damage when it crashed in visual conditions during initial climb from runway 30 at Iowa City Municipal Airport (IOW), Iowa City, Iowa. The pilot and one passenger received minor injuries, and the second passenger, a child, received fatal injuries. The passengers were a mother and her daughter who had flown to Iowa City for a scheduled medical procedure for the daughter. The mother told investigators that she had used a child carrier for her daughter until she reached the age of two. She was seated in the right rear seat holding her daughter on her lap. Her daughter wasn’t using any restraints.
The NTSB points to the in-flight break-up of a Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche back in 1992 as further evidence of the need to restrain children. The pilot had been briefed about thunderstorms along the route of flight. According to the Safety Board, he attempted to fly through a strong cell with heavy rain and severe turbulence. The wings and horizontal stabilizer broke off at 8,000 feet over Broussard, La., sending the airplane out of control. Although the pilot was killed, the 10-month old and four-year old restrained in child safety seats secured on the aircraft’s rear seat survived with serious injuries, as did the right front seat passenger.
NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher A. Hart suggested that it was futile to ask the FAA to require separate seats and restraints for passengers under two by repeating the same safety arguments it has made in the past because “...we have no reason to believe that this approach will achieve a better result this time.” Rather, he said, the Safety Board should argue that there’s no longer a scientific basis for the FAA to exclude children under two from seating/restraint requirements, and the exception should be rescinded because it’s arbitrary. He added that he would apply the “scientific basis” approach “...not only to Parts 121, and 135, but also to Part 91, because there is no difference between those Parts insofar as the physics of restraining children is concerned.”