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CBS 2 Investigation: Taking Flight Without Life Rafts

It Appears FAA Has Learned Nothing From US Airways Flight 1549 Lesson
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US Airways Flight 1549

The hero pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 says if his plane did not have life rafts the miracle of that day back in 2009 may never have happened. (Photo: CBS 2)

NEW YORK (CBS 2) — When you board a flight you assume the plane is equipped to handle an emergency.

But that may not be the case.

A CBS 2 investigation finds some planes don’t carry life rafts, and they’re allowed to fly over water without them, reports Chris Wragge.

It’s a policy that goes back decades. Most people don’t know about it. But now a local hero familiar to everyone in New York is pushing for Congress to require life rafts on all flights.

We all remember the images back in January 2009. A bird strike forced US Airways Flight 1549 to land in the middle of the Hudson River. Everyone on board survived.

“I was thinking about my wife and kids,” passenger Bill Elkin said.

“Once I came to and 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, because at that point I thought I had a pretty good shot of drowning inside the airplane.”

The “Miracle on the Hudson” could have been a disaster — and it’s not why you think.

“Had we not had life rafts and only seat cushions for floatation I think it’s likely we would not have had as good an outcome,” Flight 1549 pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger said.

Sullenberger’s flight from New York to Charlotte wasn’t even scheduled to travel over water.

“I think Flight 1549 two-and-a-half years ago proves that water landings can result in survival of everyone on the airplane, if there are slide rafts or life rafts in addition to life vests,” Sullenberger said.

However, CBS 2 has learned some commercial flights from New York airports don’t carry life boats even though they do fly over water.

“It does raise a concern, absolutely,” said aviation consumer’s advocate William “Bill” McGee.

McGee is a travel consultant for the Consumers Union.

“The idea that we would compromise the margin of safety by removing life rafts from commercial aircraft, with all that we’ve seen in recent years, it’s quite dangerous,” McGee said.

But that is exactly what’s happening. CBS 2’s investigation learned the Federal Aviation Administration routinely waives the requirement of life rafts on airplanes flying over the ocean.

“Most domestic flights now are operated by airplanes that do not have life rafts or life vests, only seat cushions for floatation,” Sullenberger said.

Eighteen different commercial airlines got waivers from the FAA to fly with no life rafts on board. They do use seat cushions and individual life vests.

“And that’s just not as good in a water landing as life rafts are, even if the temperatures are moderate. Because hypothermia in water can be an issue so quickly, even water that’s relatively warm,” Sullenberger said.

Wragge asked travelers at Newark Liberty International Airport if they had concerns.

“It’s very disconcerting. I don’t know why they would allow something like that to happen,” said Tracey Thompson of Westfield, N.J.

“If you’re falling from 20,000 feet up there in the air I don’t know what a life raft is going to be doing,” said Catherine Denotter of Holland.

“It sounds unsafe to me. At least you have some shot with a life raft. Without a life raft you don’t have anything,” another traveler said.

“I fly every week and I’m comfortable flying. If I thought the plane was going down I wouldn’t get on it,” added Brad Walton of Salt Lake City.

The FAA says: “These waivers are granted only after a thorough evaluation of the operator’s safety plans.”

Gabe Bruno served as an operations inspector and regional manager for the FAA for 28 years.

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

CBS 2 contacted the major U.S. airlines about life rafts. The carriers that responded said they fly safe and obey the FAA rules and waivers as written.

If you want to know if your plane has a life raft ask your flight attendant.

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