NTSB addresses airbags in GA aircraft

January 13, 2011

The National Transportation Safety Board has adopted a study suggesting that general aviation airplanes equipped with airbags provide additional protection to occupants in accidents involving survivable forward impacts.

The NTSB made several recommendations to the FAA on the installation and use of airbags in aircraft, and to assure that airbags can protect people of all sizes. NTSB recommendations are nonbinding: For the FAA to take action based on the recommendations, the agency would have to follow the rulemaking process, including a cost benefit analysis.

"Although airbags have been mandated in automobiles for over a decade, the aviation industry has no such requirement for small aircraft," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. "The good news is that over 30 manufacturers have stepped up to the plate and offer airbags as standard or optional equipment."

Airbags were first approved for use in the pilot and copilot seats in GA aircraft in 2003. The board said there are nearly 18,000 airbag-equipped seats in more than 7,000 of the 224,000 GA aircraft in the United States.

A study of 88 accidents between 2006 and 2009 involving airbag-equipped GA aircraft “found no instances where the airbag caused harm in properly restrained occupants,” the NTSB said. Rather, the study found that the airbag likely mitigated injuries for two occupants within a group of 10 accidents that involved crash forces strong enough to cause injury or deploy the airbag. It also noted that no airbags failed to deploy, deployed unexpectedly, or interfered with rescue attempts.

Aviation safety equipment provider AmSafe Industries, which produces aircraft airbags, issued a statement supporting the recommendations of the board. “We salute the NTSB and its technical staff for having undertaken this important study, and we appreciate the fact that the NTSB has ratified a position AmSafe has held for years: seatbelt airbags on aircraft have saved lives,” it said. The company expressed optimism that the study’s findings will contribute to a heightened awareness of the benefits of airbags.

“We are encouraged by the findings of the NTSB and are confident that this endorsement will lead to more widespread use of seatbelt airbags on general aviation, business and commercial aircraft,” it said.

The board did express concern that, “In certain aircraft types, the seat belts in the left and right seats can become reversed, which could result in the wrong airbag being activated if only one of the seats is occupied,” and that occupants whose body mass indexes classified them as either overweight or obese might not have optimal airbag protection.

The study also affirmed that correctly installed shoulder harness/lap belt combinations provide greater protection in GA accidents than that offered by a lap belt alone. Based on an analysis of more than 37,000 GA accidents, the board concluded that “the risk of fatal or serious injury was 50 percent higher when an occupant was only restrained by a lap belt as compared to the combination lap belt and shoulder harness.”

The board voted to adopt safety recommendations intended to reduce misuse of restraint systems, provide protection for a wider range of body sizes, expand shoulder harnesses to all GA airplanes, and track data from airbag deployments.

It recommended that the FAA reduce misuse of restraint systems by requiring manufacturers to modify those vulnerable to being used incorrectly in new and existing airplanes, and by revising guidance and certification standards. It also recommended that the FAA modify guidance to airbag manufacturers regarding their demonstration of adequate protection for a greater range of body sizes and require retrofitting of shoulder harnesses on all GA airplanes and track data from airbags and other safety equipment.