You don’t have to have aerophobia (the fear of flying or being on an airplane) to be concerned about your safety while traveling by air. Even though advancement in technology has made air travel safer, you cannot help but feel a little scared when there’s turbulence. You might even tighten your seatbelt, grab onto the armrests, and try to remember everything the flight attendant said when the flight took off. That’s when you will notice – the airline has given you a life vest but no parachute!
Military aircraft, such as fighter jets, have several parachutes that passengers can use in times of extreme emergencies. In such situations, jumping out of the plane may be their only option for survival. On the other hand, commercial aircraft, such as the Boeing 737, can carry as many as 200 people. Thousands of people around the world use these airliners every day to travel from point A to point B. So, why don’t airlines provide parachutes on board these planes for the safety of passengers? Actually, there are several good reasons for that. Let’s find them out.
Hollywood would have us believe that jumping out of an airplane requires nothing but bravado. In reality, however, parachuting is extremely complex, and it requires hours’ worth of professional training. Even the most basic form of skydiving, known as tandem skydiving (where you are strapped to an expert throughout the process), requires you to go through at least an hour of training. Accelerated freefall or AFF, on the other hand, is the riskiest form of skydiving. This solo freefall starts at 10,000 to 13,000 feet above the ground. To do this, you would need even more specialized training and a lot of practice.
Moreover, jumping out of an aircraft in an emergency and skydiving for fun is not the same thing. One is a matter of life and death, and the other, though highly risky, is a type of adventure sport. Besides, skydiving takes place after careful consideration and painstaking planning. For example, jumps are always pre-planned. Skydivers know beforehand where they will jump, what they have to do, and when they have to do it. Even a slight change in weather conditions can cause the whole thing to be canceled.
On the other hand, while traveling by plane, regular passengers are not expecting to jump, and they would not even know how to or when to jump in the event of a crisis. Just imagine the chaos and fear everybody would experience in an emergency. Even something as basic as putting on the parachute correctly would seem like a monumental task. So, skydiving out of danger does not seem very practical here.
Planes that are used for skydiving tend to be much smaller than commercial airliners, and they are emptied as soon as the skydivers jump. On the other hand, military aircraft are large and have a ramp at the back. Parachutists use this ramp to jump safely while avoiding the fuselage (the main body of the aircraft). Commercial airplanes, however, do not have a small body or a ramp. Jumping out of such a plane is extremely risky as the diver could easily smash into the fuselage, especially the wings and the tail.
As mentioned above, skydives are meticulously planned, and the height of the jump is one of the most crucial details. The highest point a skydiving plane would go is 15,000 to 16,000 feet. Commercial planes, on the other hand, fly on an average height of 35,000 feet above the ground. At this altitude, the temperature drops down significantly and breathable air becomes scarce. Even if passengers manage to jump out of the plane safely, they would have to be wearing HALO, or high-altitude equipment, comprising of an oxygen cylinder, regulator, mask, altimeter, ballistic helmet, and flight suit. Without these, they might pass out due to a lack of oxygen.
The speed of commercial airplanes is another aspect that makes skydiving from them almost impossible. When cruising at a high altitude, the Boeing 737 can reach a speed of 600 miles per hour. Air traffic controllers typically assign the speed and altitude, and longer flights tend to fly higher than the average altitude of 35,000 feet to 39,000 feet. Jumping from this height, when the plane is flying that fast, can even itself be fatal!
For starters, even a single parachute would be too bulky to fit under the typical seat in the economy class. It is also quite heavy. So, airlines would have to come up with the necessary space to accommodate all the parachutes. If you have ever been on a plane, you already know how strict they are about the weight of luggage, especially carry-ons. Now, imagine adding one parachute per passenger. It would easily increase the overall weight by 6,000 to 8,000 pounds. Add the cost of that to the HALO gear we mentioned above.
The parachutes and the gears themselves are fairly expensive, and making space for them would require even more money. Of course, the airline would not pay for it out of their pocket. They would include the added cost to the price of the flight tickets which are already more expensive than other forms of public transport.
Statistically speaking, most airplane accidents take place during takeoff and landing. In fact, from 2003 to 2012, merely 9% of all fatal airplane accidents took place while the aircraft was cruising at high altitudes. Moreover, one of those accidents took place because of a thunderstorm. Parachutes are useless during takeoff and landing, but it can be even more dangerous to parachute out of a plane during a thunderstorm. Even trained parachutists would not attempt it.
All in all, having parachutes onboard commercial flights might sound like a good idea at first. However, when you examine the logistics, it does not seem like a very practical or even a viable proposition.