Your airplane seatbelt may also be an airbag

Buckle up, you dummy!

Airbags on airplanes have arrived and they’re not just a special perk for first-class passengers.

In fact, if you’ve been seated in a bulkhead row, near an exit-row door or in business- or first-class seats on newer planes, you may have already strapped on an airbag and not even noticed.

Unlike automobiles, airplane airbags aren’t built into the vehicle but added onto seatbelts in what looks like just some extra padding.

“Sometimes when I’m boarding a plane and see people looking around wondering why their seatbelt looks different, I stop and explain,” said Chris Muklevicz, vice president of sales and marketing for aviation restraints at AmSafe, the company that makes the only airbags certified for commercial aircraft. “But then passengers around them start asking why then don’t have them, too.”

In an interview earlier this week at the 2011 Aircraft Interiors Expo in Seattle, Muklevicz explained that seatbelts with airbags were developed as a cost-effective way for airlines to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) requirement that, as of October 2009, all seats on new airplanes must be “16g” seats — able to withstand stresses and impacts of up to 16 times the force of gravity. The previous requirement was 9gs.

Most seats on new airplanes do meet the guidelines in part because they have seats in front of them that can add some cushioning in an accident. Bulkhead and front-row seats and those swanky pod-like units in some first- and business-class sections often don’t. The added protection offered by a $2,000 seatbelt airbag (versus the $50 traditional seatbelt) helps bring those seats up to code.

“Airlines could remove seats from those positions, but they don’t want to lose that potential revenue,” Muklevicz said.

The new seat code was put in place because tests and real-life incidents show passengers have a good chance of surviving an accident if seats aren’t first torn from the floor during a crash. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, more than 80 percent of commercial airline accidents are survivable because they occur on the ground or during take-off or landing when the aircraft is close to the ground and flying at relatively low speeds.

Muklevicz said the seatbelt airbags are designed to keep a passenger conscious after an impact. “If the passenger is conscious and it’s possible to get out of the plane, this can make a big difference in survival if there’s smoke and fire,” he said.

Right now, there are more than 70,000 airbag-equipped seatbelts in service. Half of those are on commercial airplanes and half are on general aviation aircraft. “Luckily, it hasn’t yet been tested in a real commercial aircraft crash,” Muklevicz told me, “but there are have plenty of reports of it saving lives on private aircraft.”

AmSafe's Chris Muklevicz with seatbelt airbag

(A slightly different version of this story first appeared on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin.)

Tidbits for travelers: airfare tax holiday (sort of) & fresh airport art

A little bit of this and that for a summer Monday:

Tax holiday on airline tickets – sort of

The U.S. government’s failure to reauthorize the budget for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), means that domestic airlines can’t charge some federal excise taxes on flights until the issue is worked out.

For a while there over the weekend, it looked like travelers would be getting a holiday from several taxes (the 7.5% tax on domestic transportation, the $3.70 domestic segment tax and the $16.30 international arrival/departure tax), but it turned out only some airlines, including Alaska Airlines, Spirit Airlines (surprise!) and Virgin America are passing along the savings.


The other airlines? They raised their bases fares so that, in many cases, anyone seeking to buy a ticket would pay what they would have before the FAA shutdown.



If you’re traveling through John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA before September 12, 2011, look for paintings by Steve Metzger on the departure (upper) level near the security screening areas and on the arrival (lower) level near baggage carousels 1 and 4.

Courtesy Steve Metzger

A professor at Fullerton College and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Metzger’s paintings from photos depict “metaphoric icons of the passage of time.” Here’s a link to more images from the Metzger exhibition.

And, on Thursday, July 28, 2011, passengers at Philadelphia International Airport will be able to watch woodworker Roosevelt Bassett turn discarded wood lathe into purses and hats.

Part of the airport’s series of artist demonstrations, Bassett will be at work from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. in the Terminal B-C Food Court.

If you’re not passing through the PHL on Thursday, don’t worry. There’s an exhibition of Bassett’s wood handbags in Terminal B.

Tax-holiday for airline tickets

The temporary shutdown of the FAA – the Federal Aviation Administration – due to a spat over $16.5 million in subsidies to 13 rural communities, means a temporary tax holiday for anyone who buys an airline ticket before the issue is resolved.

The shutdown means that, starting Friday night, airlines don’t have the authority to collect federal excise ticket taxes until congress reinstates them.

A release sent out by Alaska Airlines lists the taxes that will not be collected:

• The 7.5% tax generally applicable to domestic transportation – as well as the 7.5% tax on amounts received from the sale of frequent flier miles.
• The $3.70 domestic segment tax.
• The $16.30 international arrival/departure tax.
• The $8.20 departure tax for flights between Alaska/Hawaii and the mainland US.

On a $300 round trip ticket, notes Alaska Airlines, this represents a savings of about $44 or about 14 percent.

What are you waiting for?

FAA: no more emergency oxygen in airplane bathrooms

Now this is scary:

By order of the FAA, U.S. airlines have removed the emergency oxygen generators on all U.S. airplanes.  Here’s the story I worked on today today for msnbc.com:  FAA: No more oxygen in airplane lavatories.

Citing security concerns, the federal government in secrecy last month ordered every airline in the United States to remove emergency oxygen in every lavatory on all 6,000 domestic commercial aircraft.

Under Air Worthiness Directive 2011-04-09, made public this week, the Federal Aviation Administration directed all airlines to disable the lavatory oxygen generators to “eliminate a potential safety and security vulnerability.”

That means that if there’s a sudden loss of cabin pressure, now only those passengers at their seats will have oxygen flowing to the masks that drop down from the ceiling.

“I’m in shock,” said Kate Hanni, executive director of Flyersrights.org, a nonprofit airline passengers’ rights organization. “We get reports of mid-air decompression events all the time. So now going to the bathroom on a commercial flight can kill you? I’m panicking just thinking about this.”

Although rapid decompression is rare, it does happen. In October, for example, oxygen masks were deployed on an American Airlines flight enroute from Miami to Boston after the cabin lost pressure when a two-foot hole tore open in the plane’s fuselage . The crew declared an emergency, and the plane safely returned to Miami. Passengers were panicked, but no one was injured.

But under the FAA’s new directive, any passengers who happen to be in the airplane restroom should such an event occur would no longer have immediate access to oxygen.

According to the FAA, the airlines completed disabling the oxygen generators in the lavatories of all 6,000 U.S. aircraft on March 4. The FAA said in a statement released Thursday that it delayed informing the public about this action because it was concerned about keeping travelers “as safe and secure as possible.”

The agency told NBC News that the action was done proactively in response not to a specific threat but to general concerns that a terrorist could use the lavatory oxygen to start a fire or ignite a bomb.

“Had the FAA publicized the existence of this security vulnerability prior to airlines fixing it, thousands of planes across the U.S. and the safety of passengers could have been at risk,” the FAA stated.

The agency noted that it is working with aircraft manufacturers “to design, certify, and install a new lavatory oxygen system” on all aircraft, adding that “if there is a sudden loss of cabin pressure, pilots are already trained to guide the aircraft to a safe, breathable altitude as quickly as possible. Flight attendants are also already trained to assist passengers to quickly access oxygen — including those in the lavatories.”

Sara Keagle, a flight attendant who blogs at TheFlyingPinto.com, said flight attendants had not yet received training on the new directive but added that they already have access to portable oxygen bottles that could be used to assist any passengers in a lavatory.

“If a decompression should occur, flight attendants are trained to get on oxygen immediately,” she said. “Once it is safe, we would don a portable oxygen bottle and check the cabin, including the lavs, to make sure everyone was OK.”

But Arthur Alan Wolk, an aviation safety expert and licensed jet pilot, said: “Part of the idea of the oxygen mask dropping from the ceiling during loss of cabin pressure is to keep the occupants of the main cabin alive until an airplane gets down to a breathable altitude. By eliminating the source of oxygen for the unlucky souls in the bathroom, you’ve just killed those people.”

Airlines were expected to begin informing passengers about the lack of lavatory oxygen generators on seatback briefing cards, during the verbal passenger safety briefing presentation and on signs posted in airplane bathrooms.

Alligators, skulls, and questionable payments

There’s way too much intriguing, puzzling and just plain bizarre stuff happening at airports this week. So as we head into the weekend, here are some items I’ve filed under “find out more….”

According to this article in the Los Angeles Times, the FAA may make the agency that manages Los Angeles International Airport and several other area airports give back millions of dollars – maybe $40 million – that it may have improperly given to the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau to help promote tourism in the area. Other airports have also undergone this scrutiny.

Airports ARE a city’s front door, so it makes sense that an airport would want to be included in the overall promotion for a city. The federal government gets that and, according to the article, allows airport funds to be used for “advertising, marketing and promotions designed to increase air travel at an airport…” But only “as long as the efforts specifically relate to an airport’s amenities, airlines and advantages for travelers.”

I’m going to find out more.

Meanwhile… where does an alligator wait for its flight?

In Naples, Florida – anywhere it wants to…

Earlier this week, the Naples Municipal Airport was shut down for a while because an alligator wandered onto the runway, interfering with landings.

According to news reports, two Collier County Sheriff’s Office deputies, with no trapping experience, assisted in capturing the gator. One used the skid of a helicopter to pin the gator down by its tail. The other tied the gator to the helicopter with a rope until a professional trapper arrived.

And in Tucson, Arizona on Wednesday morning, security officers at Tucson International Airport discovered a human skull in a checked piece of luggage. The woman transporting the skull told the TSA that her boyfriend had given her the skull and that she was taking it to Philadelphia for Halloween.

On second thought, I’m not sure I need to find out more…

Have a great weekend.