FAA letting planes fly without life rafts

by: Scott MacFarlane Updated:


CHARLOTTE, N.C.,None - A controversial new practice has some safety advocates questioning both the airlines and the FAA.

Documents show numerous flights out of Charlotte Douglas Airport are taking off without a safety device most passengers assume are on board -- life rafts.

Life rafts are one of the reasons some Charlotte passengers are still alive.

Mary Ann Bruce of Cornelius said there were actually two miracles on the Hudson River when the pilot had to set the plane down in 2009.

After the plane made the water landing, many people were standing on the wings as the plane slowly dipped into the water. Others, including Bruce, were on sitting on one of the six life rafts on board.

“We were grabbing people, pulling them in, pulling off their clothes and giving them our clothes to keep them warm,” she said.

The FAA has a rule that requires life rafts aboard planes flying from U.S. airports that are expected to go over water for an extended period of time.

But the agency often waives its own rules and lets major airlines fly many planes each day without rafts.

There were stories of missing rafts on travel message boards, so Eyewitness News filed a request with the FAA to disclose the list of plane models that the FAA allows to fly over water without rafts.

Many of the models are used on several flights locally each day out of Charlotte Douglas, according to a U.S. Airways schedule.

An airline spokeswoman said “at times” rafts are not included on domestic flights and travelers will not know for sure until they board the plane.

The rafts are about 20 feet long and are provided with life preservers, first aid kits, drinkable water and a canopy to protect passengers from the elements.

A spokesperson for American Airlines said the rafts “aren’t needed and they are heavy and increase the amount of fuel burned in flight (as well as) the price of your ticket.”

Gabe Brune, a former FAA manager, said the airlines go without rafts because they want to save money on fuel.

But the FAA said it is allowing planes to go without rafts because there are protections in place. Instead, those planes must have a life vest for every passenger and must not fly above 25,000 feet to ensure it is easier to get back to land.

Incidents are rare, too.

The last time passengers drowned because of a lack of life rafts on a U.S. flight was in 1978 in Florida.

But the famous captain of U.S. Airways flight 1549, Chelsey Sullenberger, is urging the FAA to do away with those waivers, saying water landings cannot always be predicted or avoided.

The FAA said it has offered life raft waivers for more than 40 years and it does so because certain air carriers can demonstrate they can meet other safety requirements.

The agency said it does require planes to carry life preservers for all passengers.