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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29 comments on “Airbags Migrate from Cars to Airplanes

  1. Does anyone know about laws in other countries? Cathay Pacific has had these for a while now in all classes, but I haven’t seen them anywhere else (including in the US) that I remember.

    1. Not sure about the laws, but often the FAA sets trends for laws like this (when it’s actually being funded). You’ll see this in the US in several airplanes as follows (may not be on every single aircraft of these fleets).

      *AirTran has it on bulkhead/exits on the 737-700
      *Alaska has it on bulkhead/exits on the 737-800
      *American has it on bulkhead/exits on the 737-800
      *American has it on bulkhead/exits in biz on the 777-200
      *Continental has it on bulkhead/exits on the 737-800/900ER
      *Delta has it on bulkhead/exits on the 737-800
      *Delta has it in biz on the new config 767/777 aircraft
      *Frontier has it on bulkhead/exits on the A320
      *JetBlue has it on Even More Space seats on the A320
      *Spirit has it on bulkhead/exits on the A320
      *US Airways has it on bulkhead/exits on the A319/A320/A321
      *US Airways has it in biz on the A330s with flat beds
      *Virgin America has it on bulkhead/exits on the A319/A320

        1. This is straight from AmSafe. As mentioned, it may not be on every aircraft in the fleet but it is at least on some of them according to the guys who made it.

      1. Well, so that explains the mystery. Last time I sat in the bulkhead in biz on an AA 777-200, I thought the seatbelt looked pudgy. All this time, I thought I was imagining things.

  2. Generally after a crash comes an evac, would these slow that process down? (I’m sure they’ve done tests somewhere, right?)

  3. So the airbag would go off on the parents seat belt propelling the infant on their lap forward and smothering/smashing/squashing the baby between the bag and seat in front of you.

    I guess they figure fat people have enough padding so wouldn’t get hurt?

    Gives Spirit another reason to charge a fee to pay for it. “airbag fee”

    Does it deploy before or after you nose dive into the ground?

    1. Well, if a parent is carrying an infant in their arms, the infant is going to get hurt badly no matter what the parents do or what the seat belt is like. There is no good solution to this, other than buying a separate seat for their infant.

      1. NOT REALLY. The only way to de-activate it, according to my manual is that you use a “special” seat belt extension which is made for that seat, only to be used for passengers who require an extension. ie. passengers of size.

  4. They’re pretty obvious if you fly with them. As said above, they’ve been on Cathay in all classes since the “new” (now old) seats got introduced in 2007.

  5. I know jetblue has them on the newest planes. I flew with one once…its not bad, thicker seatbelt….

    Id be concerned about the pros and cons of surviving a 16G impact vs 8Gs relative to the cost of fuel, error deployment, and evauation interference as mentioned above.

    But you know this industry–we cant talk about safety cause that implies that there is something unsafe, blah blah blah

  6. I find it ironic that they have placed these in passenger seats, yet, as a flight attendant, one is usually seated RIGHT NEXT TO a large, METAL, HARD DOOR. Get my drift? BAM. Unconsious, due to head injury.

      1. trust me, Nicholas. I’ve been flying for almost 30 years in the career. A shoulder harness would NOT prevent my head from SMASHING into the metal hinge of the door. Next time you’re on an airbus, check out the front jumpseat and the proximity of the F/A position and that HARD SURFACE/hinge.
        In contrast, they have installed PADDING in the back of the aircraft for that jumpseat. Go figure.

    1. But FAs are seated backwards, so they would just be pressed back into their seat in any situation that airbags would help with.

    1. Ah. But the ones near the exits are usually backwards from what I’ve noticed. Maybe they should put airbags in those ones only then?

      1. Ah, but Fred. Usually a jumpseat is located near an EXIT.

        On all the 737’s that I’ve worked on, the aft jumpseats, FACE FORWARD.

  7. I agree with you, shoulder harness are useless against medal. Why even have air bags if they are placed in the wrong areas. Yeah, def wouldnt know the difference when your knocked out anyways.

  8. Given the installation of IFE on seat backs these days these would certainly seem useful to have an airbag pop up between you and the LCD screen.

    Mind you, even hitting the seat in front at any speed that would require an airbag to be deployed, IFE or not, would still be pretty dangerous

  9. CF, you made me laugh with the comment about WN pilots taxing fast. I used to fly WN all the time, like 6-8 times a week out of DAL to various places in the south. The taxiways at AMA (which is an old SAC base) are very curved towards the runway so a B52 could turn it and launch on alert.

    Well, evidently also so WN 737’s could take the turn at be wheels up in 3000′. I have felt those planes lean taking corners at some of the remote airports WN serves (AMA, MAF, ELP…). Makes me laugh every time that the cowboy attitude is still around in those cockpits, even if the planes are blue now and not mustard yellow.

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