Reporting David Goldstein
LOS ANGELES (CBS) — Rachel Abbott recently flew Southwest Airlines to San Francisco. Even though she took off from LAX over the Pacific, there were no life rafts on board, because the FAA does not require them.
“God forbid taking off we went into the water or had to make an emergency landing. It would be something I’d want to know we had the option,” Abbott said.
That option is not there for many flights out of LAX, because life rafts are only required when a flight goes more than 50 miles from land.
But according to documents obtained by CBS2 News, airline after airline has been allowed to fly twice that distance on the West Coast without life rafts.
We found that the FAA granted a deviation or waiver for certain aircraft, giving them permission to fly without the emergency equipment that could save your life and did save Bill Elkin’s life. He was a passenger on what is known as the miracle on the Hudson flight.
“The captain said, ‘brace for impact,’” Elkin recalled of that fateful day.
In January 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 glided into the Hudson River in New York after a bird strike disabled both engines. Everyone survived.
“Once I was in the life raft, at that point I felt like I was going to make it and everything was going to be alright,” Elkin said.
“I absolutely believe it made a difference on Flight 1549,” said Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who piloted Flight 1549.
“Had we not had life rafts, only seat cushions, I think it’s likely that we would not have had as good an outcome,” Sullenberger said.
Now nearly three years after the miracle on the Hudson, many flights that leave LAX still are not required to carry life rafts, unless they fly more than the 50 miles off the coast. But if they get that waiver they can double the distance and fly up to 100 miles from shore without a life raft.
We have found that the waivers can be used by many airlines in the Caribbean. Operating over water with no life rafts to countries like Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Here the waiver can be used all along the entire West Coast for certain aircraft. In Southern California only Virgin America admits to using it on flights from LAX to Cancun. All the other airlines deny it with the exception of United, they had no comment.
“We find it disturbing because the fact is, this equipment can save lives,” said Veda Shook, President of the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington, DC.
She said they have complained about the waivers to the FAA, but nothing has been done.
“From our prospective, it just doesn’t make sense to have life-saving equipment stripped off an aircraft,” Shook said.
Bill McGee of Consumers Union said it is all about dollars and cents.
He said he believes the waivers are granted because the rafts have to be inspected and replaced, which costs money, and that the added weight adds to fuel consumption.
“I think it’s part of a larger pattern of the FAA being more concerned with the economic health of the airline industry than being concerned with passengers,” McGee said.
The FAA defended the policy, saying the waivers are granted only after a thorough evaluation of the operator’s safety plans. All aircraft are still required to have a life vest for every passenger.
“What I think we really need to do is have life rafts and life vests,” Sullenberger said.
Now retired, Sullenberger is pushing Congress to require life rafts on all flights, giving passengers the added comfort of knowing that when they fly over water, all the safety equipment is flying with them.