Monday, May 5, 2008

The Emergency Landing Brace Position: A Lethal Proposition?

Conspiracy theorists reasoned out that the emergency landing brace position is really designed to kill airline passengers in a crash because its cheaper to pay wrongful death suits than medical injury compensation. Is there a truth to this?

By: Vanessa UY

Our technological ability to fly – make that heavier than air technology – is now well over 100 years old, and yet quite a large portion of our populace still harbor this irrational fear of flying even though statistically air travel is the safest way to go. This is probably the reason why unfounded myths and rumors pertaining to the airline industry have become so prevalent lately. But one of these somewhat controversial myth / rumor being spread around by conspiracy theorists is about the one pertaining to the brace position instructed to be performed by airline passengers in case of an emergency landing.

According to the conspiracy buffs, the brace position is intended to kill airline passengers by breaking their necks easily rather than saving their lives. This is so because it’s cheaper for airline companies to pay out to the wrongful death lawsuits than to pay for the surviving passengers’ medical treatment and rehabilitation which could last the survivors entire natural life. In wrongful death pay outs, the airline companies typically pays 3 to 5 million dollars while for survivors medical treatment and lifetime rehabilitation, it could reach 50 million dollars. The risk assessment in dollar terms alone is very scary, reinforcing the typical conspiracy theorists conjecture about insurance and underwriters companies in collusion with the airline industry. By placing profits first before the safety and lives of their passengers, conspiracy theorists never had a better excuse in thinking so. But is there any truth to this?

A very entertaining science program on the Discovery Channel called Mythbusters routinely dispel and test suspected myths like the one previously mentioned by performing visually extravagant but valid scientific experiments that had gained them a cult following – especially to the younger viewers who desperately needed scientific enlightenment. In one episode, they did an experiment to test the validity of the myth that the brace position is designed to kill airline passengers during an emergency landing. Their high tech sensor loaded (actually they used postal / parcel service shock measuring stickers) crash test dummy named “Buster” was used to substitute a human passenger in an emergency landing situation. Sure enough, Buster demonstrated that the brace position actually reduced the shock or G load to a typical passenger by as much as 20 G s. That’s 20 G s less shock compared to a passenger in a normal sitting position. That’s a very significant difference of an outcome between survival and death.

To evaluate the big picture on why this myth ever came about in the first place, let’s examine first the history of manned aviation. When the Wright Brothers first demonstrated their newfound prowess of manned flight, they spawned a host of barnstormers i.e. early aviation enthusiasts. Even though they are very much popular and widespread, most people back then were still deathly scared by flying. Even witnessing a plane flying 30 feet above their heads is enough to terrify them even though there’s also a large majority who are curious to experience themselves the magic of flight. So when business entrepreneurs started the airline business back then, they have to convince the people how safe their planes are – or at least they cared about the safety of their passengers. And since airline companies are still around till this day, then safety concerns did came hand and hand with profits.

Sadly, there’s this other thing that the conspiracy theorists overlook that was always part and parcel of profit generating enterprises – namely corporate social responsibility and ethical business governance. Even though these concepts only became unique selling points of customers quite recently. It’s only common sense that your customers and clients will only do business with you again if you treat them right. Even private security contractors are subscribing to the corporate social responsibility and ethical business governance fad by using the phrase “at least we’re not killing innocent civilians” as their unique selling point. Maybe conspiracy theorists need to study the history of aviation first. If these conspiracy theorists don’t find history or science as a “sexy subject” anymore, then they should blame the Board of Education, not the airline industry.