Oxygen masks hang from the ceiling in the cabin interior of Asiana Airlines flight 214 following the crash on July 7.
The design of the Boeing 777, as well as broader aircraft safety advancements, may have helped passengers survive the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash in San Francisco.
Stronger seats, fire resistant plane interiors and stronger planes are some of the aviation advances that experts say have contributed to more passengers surviving crashes like Saturday's. Of the 307 passengers and crew aboard Flight 214, nearly 200 were injured, but only two died.
Boeing 777s were in development during the late 1980s and early '90s, when many of those safety advancements were first available, said Airsafe.com Foundation director Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing who worked on the 777. The design of the 777 took advantage of advances at the time including more easily opened exit doors.
A Boeing spokesman declined to comment, citing international protocol governing aviation accident investigations.
The Asiana aircraft in Saturday's crash, HL7742, was a Boeing 777-200ER—which debuted in 1997 and is one of the most common variants. Records indicate that HL7742 has been in use on Asiana Airlines since 2006.
Although the 777 design is more than a decade old, safety advancements in the interim would have been incorporated even in those early aircraft as part of regular maintenance and cabin upgrades over the years, said Larry Rooney, executive vice president for the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association, an industry group representing pilots unions.
Of particular relevance for Saturday's crash, the 777 uses Federal Aviation Administration requirements—new at the time of its design—that passenger seats withstand forces of at least 16 times that of gravity. Had the interior been built to older specifications, seats could have pushed together, crushing passengers and making escape more difficult, Curtis said.
More fire-retardant seats and flooring may have also had an impact, said Rooney. New materials are slower to burn and don't give off dangerous fumes, both of which could impede passenger evacuation.
Experts say it's less clear whether the 777's aluminum fuselage might have played a role, or performed better than a newer aircraft, many of which use carbon composites. (In June, Boeing said its forthcoming 777X would also use aluminum.) "It's too early to weigh in," said Thomas Kinton, an aviation consultant. Curtis said there's not enough information to gauge how a composite aircraft would have performed in the crash.
In general, the 777 is one of the safest aircraft, experts said. The National Transportation Safety Board has logged 57 incidents involving the aircraft since mid-1997, most of them minor. The most serious occurred in January 2008, when a British Airways Flight 38 arriving at Heathrow from Beijing crashed short of the runway. There were no fatalities, and the crash was attributed to ice crystals forming on the fuel line during the long-haul flight.
"It has a very good record compared with any major aircraft that has been introduced in the past 20 years," said Curtis. "Until Saturday, the 777 had zero [fatal flights]. Now it has 1."
Worried consumers have little recourse. Booking sites usually note aircraft type and sites such as SeatGuru.com and SeatPlans.com provide consumers with details on seat configuration. But it's less feasible to pick an aircraft than it is an aisle seat, said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com.
Airlines typically use the same aircraft for flights on a particular route, so it's tough to avoid (or angle for) a 777 in particular. Nor is it a necessary step, he said. Passengers would be better served paying attention to flight safety demonstrations and reading the instruction card in their seat-back pocket. "The 777 has a really good safety record; this could happen to any plane," he said.
—By CNBC.com's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @KelliGrant.
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First published July 8 2013, 11:26 AM