Report: Not All Planes Flying Over Water Have Life Rafts

Most of us assume that planes flying over open water are equipped with life rafts, but that is not always the case. Nor is it illegal, not as long as the airline has received a waiver from the FAA.

See the list: Ten Safest Airlines in the U.S. and World

According to joint research conducted by CBS News stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Miami, the FAA “routinely” gives airlines a safety waiver from a rule requiring planes to have life rafts if they travel more than 100 miles off shore. Normally planes must be equipped with life rafts when flying more than 50 miles from land, but among those getting waivers are several Caribbean flights.

Are Flights Safe without Life Rafts?

Is this safe? The FAA seems to think so, and the agency is generally pretty picky about this sort of thing; for example, when airlines are required to have life rafts, FAA regulations state that “there must be enough life rafts for all occupants even if the largest of the rafts is lost.” In other words, planes must carry a spare.

In response to the safety waiver report, the FAA noted the following:

  • Aircraft that fly under these waivers are required to have a life vest for every seat on the plane
  • Aircraft must fly at an altitude of at least 25,000 feet so they would be able to reach shore in case of an emergency
  • Almost all aircraft operating under these waivers have emergency evacuation slides, which function as life rafts in case of a water landing [italics are mine]
  • Aircraft flying with these waivers are in constant communication with air traffic control during flight

Various airlines responded to questions about the waivers by saying, in essence that they follow all FAA regulations and in some cases do more than is required.

What Does Capt. Sully Think?

You’ll recall the daring 2009 landing in the Hudson by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger when his US Airways plane lost both engines. All survived and the passengers and crew did use the life rafts. The unexcitable Sully said, had life rafts not been available, “I think it’s likely that we would not have had as good an outcome.” Something to think about.

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Published: September 26, 2011