FAA Interested in Inflatable Seatbelts on Planes

Imagine being buckled in your seat on a crowded plane. Now, imagine hitting a rough patch of turbulence and – boom! Air bag-type seatbelts deploy and you and your fellow passengers have suddenly morphed into a sea of well-padded Michelin Men.

It could happen if the FAA’s interest in inflatable lapbelts gets anywhere.

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How Inflatable Belts can Help

The agency is requesting comments about a Boeing plan to install such seatbelts aboard its 717-200 series of aircraft (which can carry a passenger/crew load of 140). While noting that inflatable air bag protections are standard for the automobile industry, this sort of thing is a novelty for planes but it just might be the ticket for a safer ride – or, crash. A big benefit: reducing the risk of head injuries which in turn might allow more passengers to escape a bad situation when a speedy exit is of the essence (and the Miracle on the Hudson flight might be a good example). Inflatable lapbelts might also provide extra protection during turbulence; as a veteran flight attendant once told FareCompare, the danger with that is winding up “on the ceiling like pancake batter.”

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Challenges of Inflatable Seatbelts

But there are problems with inflatable belts, too. Here are just a few:

  • Exiting in inflated belts: Let’s face it, today’s planes are packed, yet somehow airlines like American still manage to squeeze in a few more seats. But if all passengers belts inflate at once couldn’t the extra room taken up by the bags make it more difficult to get past rows, down aisles and through doors?
  • Power loss: As the FAA notes,inflatable lapbelts will be electrically powered but the system could fail if “the fuselage separates” which has been known to happen after a crash.
  • Passengers of size: Would the belts fit all shapes and sizes? What about those who use seatbelt extenders? And what about children – especially lap children?
  • Mandating belt use: Would belt use be mandatory whenever passengers are seated? Note: the FAA currently recommends that parents of children under two not hold them in their laps because it’s not always safe, but it has not made this a hard-and-fast rule.

Question: How do you view these belts? A.) An idea that should have been implemented years ago, or, B.) An expensive extra that the airlines will pass along to customers via high airfare. We’d love to hear.

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Published: June 20, 2013