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Why airplane crashes are now safer than ever

The collision between a pair of airplanes on a runway at Japan’s Haneda International Airport last week has been hailed as nothing short of a miracle. The crash between Japan Airlines (JAL) flight 516 and a Japanese Coast Guard aircraft — and the subsequent explosion — captured the world’s attention as it was shared across social media.

But the real headline was how few fatalities resulted from what very well could have been a tragedy of spectacular proportions.

Just five crew members on the Coast Guard prop plane perished, while another was critically injured. But all 379 passengers and crew aboard the JAL plane managed to survive, stunning both aviation experts and an amazed general public.

While luck — divine or otherwise — was clearly on the planes’ side, the fact that so many escaped unscathed can actually be attributed to far more down-to-earth considerations. Indeed, a generation ago, the Flight 516 crash would almost certainly have resulted in a mass-casualty disaster — such as the 1977 runway collision between two jets in the Canary Islands that killed 583 people.

But as the Japan accident so boldly demonstrates, crashes today are not only far rarer, they’re far more survivable than ever before.

In the immediate aftermath of the JAL disaster, the flight’s cabin crew was rightly praised for overseeing a speedy and orderly evacuation as the aircraft became engulfed in flames. And they did so under the most extreme conditions, overcoming a number of setbacks that could have easily proven fatal.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the plane’s exit doors failed to open properly, many of its escape slides proved faulty, and the intercom system malfunctioned. The flight attendants rolled with the punches and used old-fashioned megaphones to shout out instructions to passengers. Barely 18 minutes after the mayhem began, every passenger had been evacuated from the JAL plane shaken, but alive.

Beyond the crew’s commendable quick thinking, the disaster confirmed the aviation industry’s decades-long investment in next-generation materials and technologies intended to both save money – and lives. Indeed, according to a 2020 MIT study, commercial air travel is now nearly 20 times safer than four decades ago. Aviation-related deaths, MIT reported, have fallen from one per 350,000 passenger boardings between 1968-77 to just one per 7.9 million between 2008-2017.

The U.S. hasn’t had a major commercial aviation accident since 2009, when a Colgan Air jet crashed into a house near Buffalo and killed 50 people. And beyond the 2018 and 2019 Boeing 737-Max tragedies in Indonesia and Ethiopia (which resulted in a combined 346 casualties), fatal crashes are equally rare worldwide. The data is all the more impressive considering that total annual global passenger numbers surged from just under 2 billion in 2000 to nearly 5 billion immediately before the pandemic, according to the International Energy Agency.

The most significant factor in why air travel has become so safe — and crashes so survivable — are advancements in new aircraft construction. Airlines are phasing out aging planes like the Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 used for decades for profitable long-haul flights. Taking their place are newer, more efficient jets like Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner along with the Airbus A350-900, the plane involved in the Tokyo collision.

These are known as carbon composite jets, named after their primary construction material. Unlike older aircraft, which are built from aluminum, steel, and other alloys, composite planes are made from carbon fibers joined with adhesives such as epoxy resin. Composites weigh less than traditional airplane metals, yet are just as strong and durable.

The use of composites has been hailed as a “game changer” by aviation industry site Simple Flying and it is easy to see why when it comes to safety. Traditional metal materials can begin to degrade at just 600 degrees Celsius. But composites are far more heat resistant, often able to withstand temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Celsius.

“Carbon composite materials on aircraft are significantly stronger [than aluminum] from an engineering standpoint,” explains Professor Shawn Pruchnicki, an air safety expert at the Center for Aviation Studies at Ohio State University. “At traditional jet fuel fire temperatures, aluminum will melt. So the hull is breached sooner.”

The use of composites has been hailed as a “game changer” by aviation industry site Simple Flying and it is easy to see why when it comes to safety. Traditional metal materials can begin to degrade at just 600 degrees Celsius. But composites are far more heat resistant, often able to withstand temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Celsius.

Along with fewer flames, slower burn times also mean far less toxic cabin smoke in case of accidents, says Henry Harteveldt, an aviation analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. And this helps further keep passengers alive.

In the case of the A350, more than 50% of the entire airplane is composed of composites – from the fuselage to the wings and tail. That makes the plane about 20% lighter than if it were made of traditional metals, which means it burns less fuel. What has been in question is, how well these composite planes would hold up in a fire.

The Japan Airlines collision provides some much-needed answers. Indeed, the Tokyo tragedy is the first time one of these modern carbon-composite planes has been consumed by flames. Aviation experts say the fuselage held up well amid the inferno, buying passengers valuable escape time.

“The aircraft seemed like it really maintained its integrity after the collision and played a role in the fire not breaking through as fast,” Pruchnicki says. Exactly how well the plane performed during the crash is still being determined as investigators comb through the wreckage in Japan.

Along with those slower-burning (and smoke-producing) composites, Harteveldt says safety improvements have been implemented from nose to tail. Passenger seats, for instance, can withstand far more intense impacts today – up to 16gs compared to the 9gs previously mandated by law, according to Boeing. Newer planes such as the A350, Harteveldt continues, feature clearer exit signage and improved floor-path lighting — all intended to make evacuations smoother during emergencies.

Beyond airplane construction, the most important safety improvements have centered around crew preparation and training. In the earliest days of commercial aviation, registered nurses were hired as flight attendants. But as air travel became more ubiquitous, the job evolved from issues of care and comfort to passenger safety. Most major airlines require two-month training periods to qualify as flight attendants, with a heavy focus on handling crash simulations.

“Cabin crews [also] go through twice a year training for safety [and]…their ability to safely evacuate aircraft under various conditions,” Harteveldt says. These supplemental efforts are aided by additional training procedures known as CRM – or Cockpit Resource Management/Crew Resource Management – which emerged in the wake of that disastrous Canary Islands collision.

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