““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Should your airplane have airbags?
"It has never made sense to me that people who wouldn't consider driving in a car without airbags will get in an aircraft that doesn't have them," said Bill Hagan, president of Phoenix-based AmSafe Aviation. According to Hagan, airbags on airplanes can significantly increase passenger safety in accidents that occur during taxiing, takeoff and landing.
"The lap belt is insufficient in protecting passengers from decelerative injuries in aviation crashes," agreed Dr. Guohua Li, director of research in the emergency medicine department at Johns Hopkins University. According to Li's study, 42 percent of aircraft crash fatalities resulted from multiple injuries, while 22 percent of deaths were caused by head injuries and 12 percent resulted from internal injuries of the thorax, abdomen or pelvis. Head injuries are the most common cause of death among children.
To combat some of these injuries, Hagan's firm developed an airbag system that mounts in a seatbelt. "It fills the space in front of the passenger to control upper torso flail," he said. "The bag is also designed to leak at a specific rate, allowing it to collapse so the passenger articulates forward slowly. All this happens in the blink of an eye. When [this process has] completed, the entire bag has deflated and presents no egress issues. The condition of the deflated bag could be described as like having a pillowcase on your lap."
The AAIR (AmSafe Aviation Inflatable Restraint) system, which went into service in 2001, caught on first with the airlines and is now installed in more than 20,000 of their seats worldwide. About three years ago, however, Hagan's firm began getting lots of requests from general aviation aircraft manufacturers.
"From 2005 to 2007," he recalled, "we went from zero product in general aviation to having our system installed as standard equipment on 80 percent of all new aircraft delivered worldwide." Currently, the AAIR system is standard on Cessna, Cirrus, Diamond, Mooney and Zenair single-engine aircraft.
"The idea caught on quickly because owner-pilots wanted the added protection," Hagan said. "If you bang your head, you can be knocked senseless and succumb to smoke inhalation and fire in an otherwise survivable accident. The AAIR system prevents that from happening and to date we've saved seven lives in five [general aviation] aircraft [accidents]." He said AmSafe has an AAIR system retrofit based on an FAA-approved model that covers about 40 percent of the general aviation aircraft in the market today.
Now that the system has gained popularity with small general aviation aircraft, Hagan is turning his attention to the business jet market. Two very light jet manufacturers plan to use the AAIR system, he said, and previously the company had an agreement with Adam Aircraft for the A700, but that opportunity evaporated when Adam went bankrupt.
One problem with installation of the AAIR system in business jets is that the seats are often not lined up one behind the other, as they are in a commercial aircraft, and may face forward, backward and even sideways. This makes deploying airbags in front of the passengers impractical in some situations.
However, "the AAIR system can be mounted anywhere on the seatbelt, including multiple places on two-, three-, four- and five-point restraint systems," Hagan explained. "As a result, we can specifically address the direction the seat faces, making it possible, for example, to get a sideways-facing divan certified for takeoff and landing. Our system will prevent passengers from bumping into one another [in the event of a mishap]. The price for installation on business jets will be $1,500 to $2,000 per seat, he said.