"'We fly along the coast," says Fred Schubel, Alaska Airlines vice president of maintenance and engineering, "but no long distances away from the shore to need rafts. One of the problems with a raft is you have a weight penalty. Overhead storage of the rafts in the aircraft also takes up cabin room."
"We're always within 50 miles of land at all times," PSA spokesman Bill Hastings says. "Even on our flights between Los Angeles and Cabo San Lucas, where we're flying over lots of water, we're hugging the Baja California Peninsula and the shoreline of the Sea of Cortez."
But that's not always the case. For example, Galipault notes that the heavily traveled air route between New York and Miami, a route the FAA has exempted from requiring life rafts, is 180 miles from the nearest coast off Jacksonville, Fla.
"Other over-water routes are as much as 100 miles from land over the Gulf of Mexico and 125 miles off the West Coast and Alaska," he says.
Seat Cushions Inadequate
Although aircraft flying these routes (including Alaska Airlines planes) carry personal flotation devices, Galipault argues that the seat cushions and/or life preservers "are inadequate safety measures."
Why? Because the real purpose of a life preserver for an airline passenger is only to support that passenger until he reaches a life raft. "At 100 miles or more from the coast with no life rafts aboard an aircraft," Galipault argues, "a passenger's chances of survival are not great. Besides, most passengers have no idea how to properly put on a life vest."
A classic case--and a tragedy--where life rafts were not on board occurred in 1978, and only a few miles from land. A National Airlines 727 pilot misjudged his approach and landed his plane in the water off Pensacola, Fla.
During the accident only two of the 55 aboard, including six trained crew members, put on their life vests properly. And despite the proximity of the crash to the shore and the swiftness of rescue crews in getting to the scene, three passengers drowned.
Ironically, National Airlines had just received an exemption from the FAA to remove life rafts from many of its planes, including the one that landed in the Gulf of Mexico.
Against the Idea
"We're against this idea of taking life rafts off the airplanes," Galipault says. "We don't think it's in the best interests of airline passengers, and we hope there won't be any more exemptions issued. I suggest that passengers flying over-water routes that are exempted from life-raft provisions get to know what kind of flotation device the plane is equipped with, where it is and how to use it. Chances are excellent that you won't have to use it, but why take chances?"
However, it appears that no exemptions are needed in some cases for airlines to remove some emergency exits from 747s.
Again, citing weight and maintenance costs, some airlines that operate 747s have recently removed two over-wing exits, thereby cutting the number of emergency exits on each 747 from 10 to 8.
"We feel very strongly that they should not do this," says John Leyden, FAA spokesman. "But technically, the airlines can do this and still meet FAA safety requirements." (Under FAA rules, the number of required exits on aircraft is based on the number of seats. According to the FAA, you can fly a 747 with more than 400 passengers using only eight emergency exits and still adhere to the regulations.)
In 1985 FAA administrator Donald Engen wrote to airlines that fly the 747s asking them not to remove the exits, but some carriers have done it anyway. "The only way to stop this," says the FAA's Leyden, "is to change the federal rules, and there has been some discussion within the agency to do this."
So far, however, nothing has been done in the two years since Engen's letter.