Many Airliners Flying Without Life Rafts

CHICAGO (CBS) — There are major airliners flying planes without potentially life-saving gear — life rafts. These rafts can protect passengers from frigid and fast-moving water when a plane has to emergency ditch in the water.

Airlines are getting around the safety rules with the help of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini discovered the FAA has, for years, been granting special waivers.

Back in 2009, passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 – that ditched in the Hudson River after birds knocked out the engines – were fortunate there were life rafts aboard. Bill Elkin was one of the passengers.

“Once I came to and I realized I was still on the plane, and it was filling up with water, to me that was more terrifying than the thought of the plane crash,” said Elkin who raced off the plane before it could sink then worried about staying safe in the frigid water.

“I didn’t take my lifejacket or my seat cushion,” said Elkin. “I say about half the passengers remembered to take their seat cushions and the other half didn’t.”

Life rafts are mandatory safety equipment on airplanes for emergencies like this, but US Airways is one of 18 airlines, including American Airlines and United Airlines, that receive waivers from the FAA.

With a waiver, an airplane can fly without rafts as long as they are within 50 miles of land. At that distance, and depending on other factors, an airplane could glide to land.


Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the former US Airways captain who safely ditched in the Hudson says life rafts should be on all aircraft.

“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,” said Sullenberger, who was dubbed hero a for safely landing and saving his passengers.

He says the waivers should be eliminated and all airplanes should carry life rafts — even for inland flights.

“I think Flight 1549 is a good example of why they are necessary,” said Sullenberger.

A former FAA manager, Gabe Bruno who now heads an FAA whistleblower group, says the agency is increasing passenger risk with each granted waiver.

“It certainly saves money for the airlines,” said Bruno. “That’s where the motivation comes from.”

Bruno says just about every type of aircraft is covered by this waiver.

“You don’t know what sort of environment an aircraft might have to ditch in,” Bruno warns.

Aviation experts say a large number of major airports have rivers, lakes or oceans nearby. Fly out of Chicago and you might have to ditch in Lake Michigan.

“Wouldn’t it be a horrendous thing to survive the crash and then die because of the elements,” said Bruno.

Elkin says that could have happened on the Hudson had there not been life rafts, “I think it would have been catastrophic.”

But there was still a problem — reportedly not enough life rafts for all passengers. Elkin tells us about one passenger who jumped in the river.

“[He] started swimming for the shore and got about twenty feet from the boat and realized with the current and the temperature there was no way he was going to make it,” said Elkin.

Federal officials say that doomed airplane originally was supposed to fly without life rafts. A US Airways spokesman says FAA rules were followed.

In a statement, an FAA spokesman says almost all waivered aircrafts have evacuation slides that act as life rafts.

The Association of Flight Attendants, and some other aviation experts, are pushing to eliminate the waivers.

More from Dave Savini
  • terry conroy

    Your kidding right?? First of all the rafts you refer to on the usair flight wee slide rafts that are used as rafts on unplanned ditching like the usair flight. There would be no chance of getting the heavey raft out of the overhead bins and inflated after dragging them through the paniced crowd. The slide rafts take care of this problem just like they are supposed to. In the case of long flights over the water the aircraft carry extra rafts depending on how many passengers the plane holds and these are for unplanned ditching not for a takeoff problem out of ord and dump into lake michigan. Wow wait till the people start fighting over less overhead storage when they put rafts in that space. Without a doubt this was a terrible job of “investigative” reporting.

  • TheEnterpriser

    Nice work CBS Chicago.

    For more on this story – read THE ENTERPRISE REPORT

    The award-winning online news outlet that first broke this story back In
    April of this year.


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