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Some Caribbean-Bound Airplanes Don’t Have Life Rafts

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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Ginger Allen
Ginger is the Senior Investigative Reporter of the CB...
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NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 NEWS) – On January 15, 2009, a routine flight from New York to Charlotte, N.C. became a watershed moment in aviation history.

US Airways flight 1549 left LaGuardia Airport with 155 passengers, but shortly after takeoff, the plane hit a flock of geese knocking out its engines. With no other options, the veteran pilot made the decision to land in the Hudson River. Fixed cameras caught the descent, and the plane made a safe landing on the river. Even at that point, the danger was far from over because the only thing separating passengers from the icy waters were life rafts. Flight 1549 had them, but not every plane does.

(The company Exosphere3D took all available data from Flight 1549 and created animation showing the flight path taken by Captain Sullenberger. Click here to see their animation.)

The pilot of that plane, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, believes life rafts were essential that day. “Had we not had life rafts and only seat cushions for flotation, I think it’s likely we would not have had a good outcome,” he said.

CBS television stations in Dallas, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles worked together to gather Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records which show that a number of commercial flights, traveling over open water, don’t carry life rafts.

“The idea that we would compromise the margin of safety by removing life rafts from commercial aircraft, it’s quite dangerous,” said Bill McGee, a travel consultant for the non-profit group Consumers Union.

The FAA routinely gives the airlines a “safety waiver” so some flight routes which take a commercial airplane more than 100 miles off shore are exempt from a rule requiring the plane to have rafts. Working together CBS station reporters compiled federal records and discovered 18 different flights to the Caribbean, which received a safety waiver from the FAA.

“I think it is part of a larger pattern with the FAA at times being more concerned about the economic health of the airline industry than being concerned with passengers that pay for the ticket,” said McGee.

It appears all the direct flights from Dallas/Fort Worth international Airport to the Caribbean are required to have life rafts, but if passengers have a connecting flight through Charlotte, Atlanta and Miami, CBS 11 News found several of those flight routes have an FAA waiver and aren’t required to have life rafts on board.

The FAA sent a list of conditions under which it issues a waiver.

Gabe Bruno, a retired regional manager with the FAA said airlines save on fuel when planes aren’t weighed down, by rafts. Even so, he doesn’t blame the airlines. “The blame rests with the FAA itself,” said Bruno, “because they’re the ones that give the deviations from the rule that’s in place to not carry the life rafts onboard.”

Several airlines responded to our request for more information about this issue by providing a statement.

Mike Frier, a commercial airline pilot, says there’s no reason for passengers to be alarmed. He’s flown many times over water without life rafts while following FAA rules.

“It doesn’t concern me that we don’t have life rafts because we’re always at such an altitude that we wouldn’t need them,” said Frier.

But Captain Sullenberger is grateful he his passengers had life rafts on that cold day in January. “I think flight 1546 two-and-a-half years ago proves that water landings can result in survival of everyone on the airplane, if there are slide rafts or life rafts in addition to life vests.”

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