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Boeing Safety Improvements May Have Aided Flight 214 Passengers

Tim Boyle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The design of the Boeing 777 and broader aircraft safety features may have helped passengers survive the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash in San Francisco this weekend.

Fire-resistant interiors and stronger seats are just two of the some of the aviation advances that experts say have contributed to more people surviving such accidents. About 200 of the 307 passengers and crew aboard Flight 214 were injured—some seriously—and two died.

Boeing 777s were in development during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the design took advantage of improvements available at the time, including exit doors that opened more easily, said Airsafe.com Director Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing who worked on the 777.

A Boeing spokesman declined to comment, citing international protocol governing aviation accident investigations.

The Asiana aircraft in Saturday's crash, HL7742, was a Boeing 777-200ER, which was introduced in 1997 and is one of the most common variants. Records indicate that Asiana has used HL7742 since 2006.

Although the 777's design is more than a decade old, safety upgrades in the interim would have been incorporated even in earlier aircraft as part of regular maintenance and cabin enhancements, said Larry Rooney, executive vice president for the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association, an industry group representing pilots unions.

Of particular relevance for the latest incident, the aircraft uses Federal Aviation Administration requirements—new at the time of its design—that passenger seats withstand impacts at least 16 times the force of gravity. Had the interior been built to older specifications, seats could have pushed together, pinning passengers and making escape more difficult, Curtis said.

More fire-retardant seats and flooring may have also had an affect, said Rooney. New materials are slower to burn and don't give off dangerous fumes, both of which could impede evacuation of the plane.

Experts said it's less clear that the 777's aluminum fuselage played a role or performed better than a newer aircraft, many of which use carbon composites. (Boeing said last month that its upcoming 777X would also use aluminum.)

"It's too early to weigh in," said aviation consultant Thomas Kinton.

Curtis echoed that, saying there's not enough information to gauge how a composite aircraft would have performed in the crash.

In general, the 777 is one of the safest aircraft, experts said. The National Transportation Safety Board has logged 57 incidents involving the aircraft since mid-1997, most of them minor. The most serious occurred in January 2008, when a British Airways Flight 38 arriving at Heathrow from Beijing crashed short of the runway. There were no fatalities, and the crash was attributed to ice crystals forming on the fuel line during the long-haul flight.

"It has a very good record compared with any major aircraft that has been introduced in the past 20 years," Curtis said. "Until Saturday, the 777 had zero [fatal flights]. Now it has 1."

Worried consumers have little recourse. Booking sites usually note aircraft type, and sites such as SeatGuru.com and SeatPlans.com provide consumers with details on seat configuration. But picking an aisle seat is far easier than picking an aircraft, according to George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com.

Carriers typically use the same aircraft for flights on a particular route, so it's tough to avoid (or angle for) a 777 in particular. Nor is it a necessary step, he said. Passengers would be better served paying attention to flight safety demonstrations and reading the instruction card in their seat-back pocket.

"The 777 has a really good safety record; this could happen to any plane," he said.

By CNBC.com's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @KelliGrant.

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