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.

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