Image: seat belt airbags
AP
This undated photo provided by AmSafe Inc. shows the deployment of a seat belt airbag that is used in commercial aviation. The airbags are becoming more common among flight training schools and aboard some U.S. commercial planes.
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updated 9/20/2010 11:31:00 AM ET 2010-09-20T15:31:00

An aviation expert says safety equipment like a seat belt airbag for airplanes is a tough sell in an industry that has a good safety record and no money to spend. But they're starting to catch on.

Long popular in overseas markets, the airbags are becoming more common among flight training schools like the University of North Dakota and quickly working their way aboard U.S. commercial planes. A new federal rule requires the airbags on some commercial planes, depending on how the seats are configured.

Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, based in Alexandria, Va., said the new requirements have convinced companies to make the airbags work.

"It's very tough to go to the chief financial officer and make an appeal because the numbers don't work for you," Voss said. "You've got to spend a lot of money for the remote chance of saving a life. But people are reaching out for new technologies."

The seat belt airbags can be found on a variety of aircraft, including a new fleet of planes ordered in the last year by the UND aerospace school.

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"We're actually seeing that technology emerge a little faster in small general aviation than large commercial," said Dana Siewert, the school's director of aviation safety.

Until recently, most of the airbag orders for commercial airlines have come from carriers in Europe, Asia and Australia, said officials from Phoenix-based AmSafe Inc., the company that makes the belt. They say the global market has expanded in the last year after a new federal rule went into effect that requires seats that are able to withstand a crash of 16 times the force of gravity.

The rule says that seats have to be designed so that a person won't be injured by hitting the seat in front or a piece of the aircraft interior. That makes it difficult to protect passengers in premium lie-flat seats and seats in exit rows, in the front of planes and near bulkheads and bathrooms.

"One of the problems is when you give yourself more room to stretch out, you also give yourself more room to accelerate in the event of an accident," Voss said. "So airbags play a more important rule in those seats."

There are no rules regarding airbag belts for planes in general aviation and flight schools.

"They select the airbag because they care about the benefit the airbag provides," said Tom Barth, AmSafe's research and development director.

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Each device has a crash sensor that determines when it should deploy, in which case a hose with compressed gas inflates the bag folded inside the belt. Unlike bags in motor vehicles, the device inflates up and away from the seat. They will not deploy in turbulence.

"It's designed to mitigate head impact or flailing injuries from when your body propels forward in an emergency landing or crash," Barth said.

Vote: Should seat belt airbags be required?

AmSafe offers several testimonials from pilots who survived crashes when the bags deployed. Ricki Halling, a 37-year-old doctor from outside of Phoenix, lived to talk about a crash earlier this year caused by an unexpected wind shear that slammed the wing to the ground and caused her plane to skid 2,000 feet and fold like an accordion.

Halling said she came away with a scrape on her knee — and taught an exercise class the next day.

"When the first responders arrived, they thought they would be pulling a dead body out of the aircraft," she said. "They didn't even realize that airplanes had airbags."

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About 50,000 airbags are currently in place, about half them in general aviation aircraft, Barth said.

"If an aviation school goes out and acquires a new single-engine airplane, chances are very good that they will have airbags standard on that airplane," Barth said.

Voss said the devices are difficult to promote.

"There's sort of a gentleman's agreement in aviation that no one ever advertises or competes on safety," Voss said. "I'm not sure whether that's a good or bad thing for the industry, to tell you the truth, but that's the conventional wisdom."

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