October 6, 2022
Evolution of Modern Aircraft Cabin Safety
Deep Dive Safety

Evolution of Modern Aircraft Cabin Safety

people inside a commercial airplane

DALLAS – Every time you step into an aircraft, you are entering an environment that is highly controlled to be as safe as possible. From the design of the doors and seats to the safety briefing, everything is highly regulated. However, many of these regulations are sometimes considered to be “written in blood.”

What this means is that in aviation, cabin safety has evolved from what it used to be decades ago. Unfortunately, a lot of what was learned has been done so when things go wrong, i.e., when aircraft end up in an accident.

Many times, it is the accidents where not all passengers survive that give a lot of information to investigators and designers. This is logical. When all passengers survive, that means everything went right; in many accidents where all passengers perish, the “container” or fuselage has catastrophic damage.

This article will shortly step through how an investigation works in accordance with ICAO Annex 13; then, what a recommendation is; finally, it will look at case studies on how investigations have shaped modern cabin safety.

This specific article is not meant to go in-depth, but there is a conference paper in the works on this topic that includes items such as doors and seats.

ICAO Annex 13 Investigation Process. Image: sassofia.com

What Exactly Is an Investigation?

When reading about aviation accident investigations, the term ICAO Annex 13 gets thrown around a lot. That is due to the fact that Annex 13 is a guideline for all countries on how an aviation accident should be investigated.

There are different parts of the Annex 13 guidelines, from how the accident should be registered, and who should take part, up to how to write the final report.

When an accident or incident occurs, the first step is that it needs to be officially reported. This starts a whole chain of events based on the severity of the accident or incident.

For the actual investigation, the country of occurrence in most cases will run the investigation, and they will invite the countries where the aircraft and engines are manufactured. Other parties invited are usually the operator and its country plus the country of the citizens on board.

The first steps will be to collect facts and data from the site, as well as to secure the black boxes. This is a priority to be done in the first hours and days, depending on external factors such as weather or the need to reopen an airport. The site will not be able to be preserved.

Beyond the traditional wreckage gathering and interviews, there are also novel investigation methods being used. One common one is to use drones to map the site; another is to use a laser scanner device for the same purpose.

Fire damage can give a lot of clues to the investigators, but it can also hide evidence and require in-depth analysis.

Out of every accident investigation, there are always recommendations to the aviation industry, or to specific players, on how to improve safety for the traveling public.

Photo: Jonathan Borba on Pexels

What Is a Recommendation?

At the end of every accident report is a section titled “Recommendations.” These recommendations can be for any part of aviation and are based on the findings of the investigation.

Investigators have looked at the whole sequence of events and usually have identified areas where practices can be changed to make aviation safer.

The regulatory authorities accept some of these recommendations before the final report is even released. Others, like the flight desk video recorder, appear repeatedly in many different reports.

As the goal of the investigation is only about safety and not about blame or financial reasoning, sometimes there is a lot of pushback on some recommendations. The most current example is the flight deck video recorder, which while being invaluable to the investigators, has massive privacy concerns for the Pilots themselves.

It is highly unlikely, therefore, that a video recording will ever make it into the flight deck.

Photo by Joël Super on Pexels.com

How Did We Get Here?

Aviation cabin safety is a special sector of safety due to the fact that the normal traveling passenger is not in any way trained regarding aircraft. Beyond that, the cabin needs to be designed for people of all sizes, from the seat sizes to the seat pitch and the size of the doors.

What does this mean in a practical sense? It means that things are designed for an “average” sized person, trying to take into account the averages for both female and male builds. So people who are on the lower or higher end of the size range might have trouble using parts of the cabin.

There is also a lack of accessible design for disabled passengers, even with the strides made in parts such as the toilets.

The regulation of cabin design is something that has come up in the last years, as some of the regulations are quite old. However, changing these older regulations can be challenging as it usually requires testing and research, which can be expensive and extensive.

What this can mean is, as stated above, that changes to regulations usually only happen after something goes wrong. Unfortunately, that means that, usually for cabin safety, people might be injured or even die before the regulation comes under scrutiny.

Case Studies

The next sections will cover some specific case studies and their impact on current day cabin safety. All information related to the accidents themselves will be taken from their respective accident reports, written and released by the corresponding accident investigation organization.

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Featured image: Aircraft cabin. Photo: Photo by Dylan Bueltel on Pexels.com

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