The science behind saving passengers on planes

Written by By James Napoli, CNN The British Railway Museum’s eerie Victoria and Albert Museum holds a collection of unique models of manned engines on the Western Railway. These range from utterly mundane to…

The science behind saving passengers on planes

Written by By James Napoli, CNN

The British Railway Museum’s eerie Victoria and Albert Museum holds a collection of unique models of manned engines on the Western Railway. These range from utterly mundane to scientifically oriented, and demonstrate the enormous differences between locomotives built over the centuries.

As we walk along the corridors, surrounded by the iconic steam, it’s hard not to notice, among the painting of steam giants, three rows of models labeled with the instruction, “No spectators.”

Their purpose is simple: the Victorians considered passengers to be less important, and less valuable, than animals. Fortunately, this distinction no longer applies in the 21st century.

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This new vision of passengers comes from two recent experiments, one completed just last month, the other taking place over a 30-year period. Both took air travel as their starting point, and attempted to re-rank the value of passengers on a modern, silent plane.

In both experiments, pilots are asked to select the least important passenger first, without the aid of any visual aids. Then, the researchers calculated all the combined value in a given flight — a cost-benefit analysis in the sky.

Taking passenger value as the starting point, the first experiment found that passengers were ranked around four times more highly than animals. In other words, animals were worth eight times less than humans on a plane.

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Among the research’s participants were three British scientists who studied the limitations of existing shelters in the moment they disembark.

The easiest design (by this estimate) is the standard human-sized body, used by 99% of humans today, while only 10% of people can evacuate a body — suggesting at best a fully enclosed plane would be ideal, where passengers could be at least partially sheltered from the elements.

The findings from the human-size model were another surprise, with passengers ranked below animals. The researchers speculated that passengers might be considered less valuable for internal reasons: human bodies are rather slow and tend to pop out before a landing, whereas their human siblings are much more resilient.

As for the air to be in, aircraft should be designed to cover as much of the fuselage as possible, theoretically even protecting against radiation. But these designs would be too tall for the modern cockpit.

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For the researchers’ models, they used the biggest version of a passenger cabin, put into shape using computer modeling and computer software. They showed it to humans, and counted the number of passengers who instantly died (something that sounds important, but just requires counting passengers, not counting the dead). This was then added to a low density target in the model, the total valuation of a specific flight.

The conclusion: this level of protection should exist on all passenger planes.

Still, if comfort isn’t your concern, your next plane could be holding other surprising surprises.

In mid-December 2018, Thomas Cook tested a cabin in-flight mode designed to work out which electrical circuit players are most likely to be activated.

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This action, popularized by the “SplitLock” battery over a decade ago, uses a tiny ‘lock’ on the air exchange site, which restricts movement. But it can be triggered by the onboard antenna, or even swipes of the hand. One airline adjusted the outcome of this to calculate which particular circuit would set off the ‘panic alarm’, even if it would be uncomfortable for passengers.

Of course, there would need to be some clever engineering to detect these steps. Moreover, once triggered, the pre-fixed circuit couldn’t be reset.

The end result? A system optimised to save passengers time, and ensure a more comfortable flight. This would need to be built into every plane. Not as sci-fi technology, but something we could see in operation soon.

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