Airbags Migrate from Cars to Airplanes

How many of you knew that you’ve probably flown on an airplane that has an airbag installed in the seatbelt? Probably not many of you, but there really is a decent chance that you’ve come near one and didn’t even know it. I spoke with AmSafe’s VP of Airbag Product, Joe Smith, about these airbags, and they’re actually pretty cool little devices.

Airplane Airbags

There’s nothing particularly innovative about the airbag itself. In fact, much of the technology has just been brought over from airbags for cars. The idea is the same – when there’s an impact, the airbag deploys, hopefully saving your life. But it’s really interesting to look at why this is happening and where you can find them.

One of the big differences between an airbag in a car and on an airplane is the location of the bag. With the airbag on the steering wheel or console in a car, it can be hazardous for small children because it can hit at a deadly angle. On the airplane, these are in the seatbelt itself so any deployment happens at the waist and pops up in front of you (as you can see in the above picture). So it’s safe for nearly everyone. The airbag system activates when the belt is buckled, so for very large people who need a seatbelt extender, it won’t activate.

Now, could it go off if you hit severe turbulence? No. I mean, it’s at least highly unlikely. The trigger is based on a change in forward motion. Turbulence can bat you around pretty good, but it usually won’t change your forward motion quickly enough that this would trigger. On the other hand, if you were taxiing at a pretty fast clip (read: probably even faster than airplanes flown by Southwest pilots), and you hit a truck, then it might very well make them go off. But you might want it in that case anyway. Check out this super slo-mo video of a deployment:

So why are airlines putting these airbags on airplanes? It’s primarily because of the law. There are rules in place that require a certain level of survivability for an accident. Some of that is around head movement while others are around a G-force standard. Many of these rules had been only in place for those aircraft that were developed as new in the last 20 years. A derivative wouldn’t count, so the impact was relatively minor. But that changed in 2009 when all newly-built airplanes had to meet this standard.

The airbags are able to help aircraft meet the standard in some specialized cases. For instance, if your seat is on a sideways angle, you have an airbag. This is most common in business class where the “herringbone” configuration is used where seats either angle into or away from the aisle. It’s also common in bulkhead rows where there isn’t a cushioned seat in front of you to soften the blow.

So when I say you’ve probably been on an airplane with airbags, it doesn’t mean you’ve had them at your seat. How would you know? Just look at the belt. The latching mechanism itself is no different, but the belt is a lot fatter with padding. That’s the airbag, and if there’s an accident, it could help improve your chances of survival.


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