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Why Catastrophic Airline Crashes Have Become More Survivable

National Transportation Safety Board officials handed out this photo of the burnt shell of Asiana Flight 214 during their first assessment of the crash. Two people died Saturday and scores more were injured.
AFP/Getty Images
National Transportation Safety Board officials handed out this photo of the burnt shell of Asiana Flight 214 during their first assessment of the crash. Two people died Saturday and scores more were injured.

The Boeing 777 that crash-landed in San Francisco has one of the best safety records in the industry. In addition to the plane's solid reputation, many other factors helped save lives in Saturday's crash — from fire-rescue training to aircraft design.

If you look at pictures of the gutted, charred fuselage of Flight 214, you'd wonder how anybody made it out alive. All but two of the 307 passengers and crew survived. Both people killed were teenage girls from China.

"Triple-7 is one of the safest airplanes flying right now," says Bill Waldock, a professor of air safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "It's only had one other crash and that was in 2008 with British Airways at London. And that one didn't kill anybody. So far, this is the first crash where we've had a fatality in the airplane, and it's been in service for over 18 years."

That crash involving a Boeing 777 at London's Heathrow turned out to be frozen fuel in the lines, which caused the engines to fail on approach. Boeing corrected the problem.

"At this time, we have not identified any specific similarities with that cause of the Heathrow event, but it is very early in our investigation," said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, who was briefing reports in San Francisco on Sunday. The NTSB is the lead agency in the investigation.

Over the many decades of commercial air travel, the airlines have learned more and more about why airplanes crash and how passengers survive.

Airplane manufacturers, for instance, are building passenger seats much stronger — they're able to withstand 16 Gs of force. So they don't rip off the floor and go flying through the cabin, injuring passengers, as they did years ago.

The cabin is safer overall, says Hans Weber, president of TECOP International, an aviation consulting firm.

"A lot of effort was put into slowing down the spread of fire after a crash landing, making the materials in the interior of the cabin more fire resistant and also changing the materials such that they wouldn't emit very highly toxic fumes," Weber says.

Aviation safety experts say it is also important to give credit to major improvements in the human response to airline accidents.

After Flight 214 broke apart, flight attendants were able to quickly deploy the inflatable slides and get everyone off the plane before the fire erupted.

"The fact that they serve coffee and tea and whatever else is certainly secondary," says Jim Tilmon, an aviation consultant who flew commercially for 29 years. "I mean, these flight attendants are extremely well trained."

Finally, there was quick action by fire and rescue teams at San Francisco International Airport. They had water and foam on the blazing fuselage within minutes — showing how disaster response has matured, says Todd Curtis, an aviation safety expert who runs the website

"That's not something that's just at San Francisco," he says, "That's something that's been honed to an art form almost by fire crews around the world."

Indeed, the crash of the Asiana jetliner is the first fatal U.S. air disaster in almost five years; and the Aviation Safety Network says last year had the fewest airline fatalities internationally since 1945.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.