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90 seconds: The technology and investment behind plane evacuations

A Boeing 777 airplane lies burned near the runway after it crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013 in San Francisco, California.

Investigators from the U.S. and Korea are meeting today with the pilot of Asiana flight 214 to help determine what caused it to crash at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday. Officials have confirmed that two of the 291 passengers on board died in the crash. Over the years airlines and aircraft manufacturers have invested in technology to improve crash survivability.

78 seconds is how long it took for 870 passengers to get off this Airbus380 in a safety test back in 2008. (See a test run in the video below).

 

The FAA requires that any plane be capable of evacuation in 90 seconds or less. That’s stricter than the 120 seconds it was back in the 60’s -- as things like emergency lighting and properly spaced exits were installed. None of this was cheap says Robert W. Mann Jr., an airline industry consultant.

“It’s not a small task,” he says. “Initially for the manufacturer where significant planning and execution costs are involved and it’s also not inexpensive for the carriers who literally must certify each individual cabin employee and flight attendant on a recurring basis.”

At this point, technology for evacuation is pretty well optimized, according to aviation safety consultant Keith Mackey. Now the primary challenge is passengers themselves.

“Many folks don’t pay any attention to the cabin announcements or bother to read the safety brochures provided in the seat backs,” he says. “That can slow the whole process down.  If you’re trying to grab your luggage, that can mean the person behind you won’t get out in time.”

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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