This is where airplane seat belts come from

Nov 30, 2019

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Even though you buckle and unbuckle them several times per flight, you might not have given much thought to your passenger seat belt. And you may or may not have noticed that sometimes, in business class or first, you’ll have a thicker and heavier leather belt.

Whichever kind of seatbelt you have, it probably came from Phoenix, Arizona.

That’s where AmSafe, which makes 95% of all airplane seatbelts sold worldwide, is based. Every year, the company ships 1.75 million regular seat belts and 100,000 crew seat belts. And, in 2001, it developed airbag-enabled seat belts, of which it now ships 25,000 per year. That airbag is what makes for those thicker, heavier leather seat belts described above.

I recently went behind the scenes at AmSafe to see how the seatbelts, both the traditional an airbag kind, are made and tested.

Custom seatbelt buckles for Turkish Airlines, ready for installation. Image by author.
Custom seat belt buckles for Turkish Airlines.

AmSafe has around 550 employees worldwide, with 300 at its headquarters. My tour was led by Bill Gehret, a longtime employee and head of sales.

An EntireLy customized product

The core of a seat belt is the webbing and simple buckle system; Gehret said the webbing itself is proprietary to AmSafe. AmSafe would not disclose its pricing for the seatbelts; industry sources say that each belt costs an airline around $60. The webbing itself comes in some 160 colors, for virtually every airline in the world. The only major airline AmSafe doesn’t serve is Southwest Airlines, which has restraints manufactured abroad.

A seatbelt being sewn.
A seatbelt being sewn.

“Everything AmSafe manufactures is custom for the client, for the intended aircraft,” said Gehret. He explained that airlines will each select the color of the webbing, whether it wants a branded faceplate, and the color and type of leather used for more premium seat belts. The facility had bolts of webbing and leather in every color you could imagine, and for every airline you could think of, from American Airlines to Turkish.

Bolts of webbing, in the preferred colors of AmSafe's airline clients.
Bolts of webbing, in the preferred colors of AmSafe’s airline clients.

Gehret emphasized that since 1988 legislation related to onboard restraints, the seat belt is part and parcel of the seat to which it’s attached. Indeed, AmSafe is required to test each and every seat combined with the proposed seatbelt to meet regulatory requirements.

“It’s a safety system integral to the the seat,” said Gehret — and that’s why AmSafe has to maintain a close relationship with seat manufacturers such as Recaro, and keeps a warehouse of seats that have been tested, ranging from the least expensive economy seat to the most expensive first-class lie-flat bed.

“Testing those seats, when they cost $100,000 each, gets very expensive when you’re running 30 to 40 seats through a crash test,” Gehret said.

How Airplane Seats and Seatbelts are Tested

“Imagine you rode a bike as fast as you can, and got going downhill at about 30 miles per hour. Then, you hit a brick wall. That’s the testing we’re replicating,” said Gehret. He’s referring to the use of crash test dummies on sleds to test so-called 16G seats, which since 1988 are required for all passenger aircraft. (They’re called 16G because that’s the maximum deceleration that could be survivable in an accident: 16 times gravity.)

It looks a little like the crash tests performed on automobiles

The dummy
The crash test dummy on a testing sled. Here, the dummy is testing a structural airbag, where the airbag is embedded in bulkhead, for example.

The company has two crash test sleds; during my visit, a seat manufacturer was reviewing the results of one such test. Outside the testing room, newly designed seats for a new airplane were sitting on a pallet, after having been tested.

The Airbag Inside Select Seatbelts

Airbags, laser-cut and ready for installation.
Airbags, laser-cut and ready for installation.

In the 1990s, then-CEO Bill Hagan spotted an opportunity to develop seatbelts with a built-in airbag. Few passengers will realize that their extra-thick seatbelt has such a feature; I certainly didn’t think about it. The airbags are encased in a leather lap belt. You’ll find them in some first- or business-class seats, and in certain exit-row seats in economy and premium economy.

The seat belt contained an airbag, making it feel heavier than usual.
A seat belt with airbag.

The heart of the system is an accelerometer that sits on the floor. It triggers an airbag inside the lap belt if the sensor detects rapidly increasing G-forces, such as would happen during a catastrophic event. Each accelerometer is individually tested before shipment.

The AmSafe accelerometer sits on the floor of the aircraft.

The most important difference between an automobile airbag and an AmSafe seat belt airbag is that the latter will inflate upwards from the seat belt, as the video below shows.

Gehret said AmSafe spent $40 million to design seat belt airbags, which were released commercially in 2001. A list of aircraft and airlines with the system is available here, and is always expanding, but we are not likely to see airbags in every seat belt; aside from the expense, they would be too heavy if used at every seat.

But the next time you buckle up, know that “padded” seatbelt is not padded simply for comfort but for your safety. And, look on the bottom of your seat belt buckle for the AmSafe logo.

Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand, and a marketing consultant to airlines, none of which appear in this article.

All photos by the author.

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