Are lifejackets a waste of money?

The Economist was wrong, but there are probably better unused ideas for aircraft safety.

The Economist said so:

In the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero. (September 2006)….

The life jackets … have little purpose other than to make passengers feel better. (2005)

Wikipedia supplies a long list of ditchings by narrow-bodied planes, with gratifyingly high survival rates, so the life jackets do make a difference. But just suppose yesterday’s brilliant airliner ditching in the Hudson was an outlier, and there really had been no precedents. Would that mean that life jackets fail a rational cost-benefit analysis (CBA)?


Like many other laymen, I’m uneasy about CBA when it’s applied to safety across a broad sweep, maximising “quality adjusted life years” regardless of context. It strips out our prior contractual relationships, legitimate and unreasonable expectations, agency and dependence, and rational or imaginary anxieties. But within a narrow field like aviation safety it should generate a fair list of priorities.

Without proper data, I surmise that since aircraft lifejackets save few lives but don’t cost much, they would go fairly well down a blank-sheet CBA list of safety measures. There are several things which commercial aviation could do and doesn’t that would probably come higher up:

* defibrillators on all larger planes

* training of one member of each cabin crew to paramedic standard

* infirmaries and low-impact exercise rooms on superjumbos

* backwards-facing seats as on military transport aircraft

* no sales of hard liquor (I stop there because I usually drink wine on flights).

Even if lifejackets come low down, that doesn’t mean they should be dropped. The Economist seems to think it unimportant to “make passengers feel better”. One in ten of us is seriously anxious about flying, and anxiety can turn to panic, so reassurance is vital. The flight jacket demonstration ritual does just that, adding a little indoctrination for everybody into the aviator’s attitude to danger: keep calm and always do something however small the chance of it working. Thinking about putting on a lifejacket makes the passenger into an agent fighting for life, not just a potential victim of tragedy. “Do not go gentle into that good night.

The danger of such rituals is that they can stop you thinking about about better plans. That’s where cold-blooded CBA becomes useful.

Admiring congratulations to Captain Sullenberger and his 155 passengers.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web