Image: Airline airbag
The AmSafe seat belt airbag deploys up and away from a passenger, as demonstrated in a dynamic crash test.
updated 7/17/2009 4:37:24 PM ET 2009-07-17T20:37:24

You may never need them at 35,000 feet, but you'll be glad they're around if you do. Defibrillators, medical kits and life vests are a few examples of the safety equipment the government requires airlines to put on passenger jets.

Of course, each item comes with a cost — from hundreds to thousands of dollars to install and maintain.

The equipment alone doesn't mean higher ticket prices, though some airlines say the cost of such equipment is factored into their total operating expenses and would be a factor in overall pricing strategy. The cost of fuel and market forces like competition from other carriers are key drivers of how airlines price their tickets and fees.

The issue comes into play for consumers this fall when some airlines put another expensive safety device on new planes to comply with a federal rule related to how sturdy a seat must be — airbags.

As of Oct. 27, all new commercial aircraft must have seats that are able to withstand a crash of 16 times the force of gravity. That's less force than in a 30 mph head-on car collision, according to Phoenix-based AmSafe Inc., the company that makes an airbag that fits inside the webbing of the seat belts it already provides in most U.S. airplanes.

The rule will come into effect at a time when airlines are struggling financially, and adding fees left and right to cover the cost of things like carrying passengers' bags and taking their reservations over the phone.

For airlines, the alternative to the airbag devices, which cost roughly $1,250 apiece, could be to remove some rows of seats, which means less revenue. Shawn David, director of fleet engineering for US Airways, sees an "advantage of doing it with airbags."

Because the FAA rule has been on airlines' radar screens for years, most of today's new aircraft are already 16G compliant and sturdier than the previous 9G standard. The Air Transport Association, a trade group for U.S. airlines, said in 2003 that its members had installed more than 370,000 16G-compatible passenger seats in their airplanes in anticipation of the rule.

But the rule also says that seats have to be designed so that a person won't be injured in a 16G crash by hitting the seat in front or a piece of the aircraft interior. Premium lie-flat seats and seats in exit rows, in the front of planes and near bulkheads and lavatories are hard to certify, making the airbag one solution.

In a survivable impact, the airbag inflates in a fraction of a second, moving away from the passenger to protect the head and torso.

"It's a no-brainer economic decision for the airlines," said AmSafe President Bill Hagan, who developed the airplane airbag and joined the company after spending years developing airbag technology at General Motors Corp. "The acceptance rate of this in the marketplace has been very high."

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

AmSafe says its patented seat belt airbag is used on roughly 25,000 seats on more than 30 airlines worldwide, including US Airways Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines, a unit of AMR Corp. Hagan said at least one major airline — he wouldn't say which — is considering putting the devices on all its seats on all its planes, even though the FAA's 16G rule is not retroactive to older planes.

There are costs involved beyond the installation of the device. The battery it uses must have a diagnostic check every 4,000 flight hours, or roughly once a year. The airbag itself must be replaced after about 14 years.

AirTran spokesman Christopher White said "operating costs generally are one of several factors in pricing."

The ATA, in documents filed while the FAA rule was being discussed, addressed what it considered to be the "high cost of removing seats ... or adding new technology, like seat belt airbags."

Southwest Airlines Co. won't be adding airbags, but to comply with the rule's head-impact criteria, it is adding a mechanism to its seats so that the back will safely release forward on impact.

"We have not been forced to increase our ticket price in direct correlation to safety requirements," spokeswoman Brandy King said. "Of course, safety is part of our, or any, airline's core and is accounted for in our overall operating costs."

American spokesman Tim Wagner said his airline put automatic external defibrillators, or AEDs, on all its aircraft in 1998, several years before the government mandated airlines put the devices and enhanced emergency medical kits on planes over a certain weight.

The AEDs, like the seat belt airbags, aren't cheap. Philips, the maker of the defibrillators on American's planes, says the devices run $1,200 to $3,000 apiece. Spokesman Ian Race says ongoing maintenance costs include training, and replenishment of batteries (up to $250) and pads ($40).

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments