May 31, 2023

Airplane evacuation tests had major limitations. A key senator wants a redo.

Source: The Washington Post


The most recent Federal Aviation Administration tests to determine how long it would take passengers to exit an airliner in the case of an emergency had limitations: The 60 mock passengers were healthy adults and carry-on luggage was nowhere to be found.


Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), chair of an aviation subcommittee, said the results don’t provide a realistic guide to how long it would take people to leave a plane. She is introducing legislation Wednesday that would require the FAA to take a more comprehensive look at the issue.


“We do this type of testing in all other places. We can do it and get realistic data,” Duckworth said. “Let’s test for real world conditions.”


The evacuation testing raises safety questions, such as how equipped modern jets are to handle older passengers or those with disabilities in case of an emergency. The issue has drawn the attention of travelers who have faced cramped seating because it could open the door to the FAA regulating legroom, based on safety reasons.


Duckworth’s legislation has the backing of pilot and flight attendant unions, passenger advocacy groups and medical organizations. But any effort to set a rule for how much space passengers are owed on a plane is likely to face opposition from airlines, who have said they see no basis for the FAA to step in.


Current safety standards call for passengers to be able to evacuate within 90 seconds. Lawmakers have long worried that as seats have got closer and the average American has become larger, cabin designs might not be able meet that standard. Congress previously directed the FAA to conduct and issue new rules for evacuations in 2018 and now has another chance to address the matter this year as it considers a major funding package for the agency.


In a summary for lawmakers on its efforts in recent years, the FAA said evacuations are rare, occurring about 30 times a year worldwide. When they do happen, the agency said, “the overall level of safety and likelihood of survivability in events involving evacuations is very high.”


Nonetheless, last year the FAA put out a public call for comments on how seat size and spacing affect evacuations and asked for opinions on whether new rules might be necessary to ensure safety. In a sign of the public’s interest, the agency received 26,000 responses. The FAA said Tuesday it’s still reviewing comments.


Duckworth’s bill, introduced with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), would set an 18-month deadline to come up with a new rule on evacuations. The legislation would require the agency to consider how readily people of different ages, heights and sizes — and those with disabilities — can get out of a plane. It also would direct the FAA to examine the effects of carry-on bags and dark, smoky conditions.


In a report summarizing its most recent tests, conducted at an Oklahoma facility in 2021, the FAA said it was not trying to provide a comprehensive look at evacuations. Instead, the agency wanted to assess the effects of the space between seats, a measurement known as “pitch.”


The report indicates the agency rejected study participants older than 60 “due to the increased risk of injury during physical activity” and rejected other subjects who were “too large to safely participate.” The researchers concluded that current seat designs did not impede evacuations, but recommended continued study as demographics shift.


In comments to the FAA last year, industry groups Airlines for America and the International Air Transport Association said existing rules on seats were enough to guarantee safety. The groups cited the findings of the agencies’ own research.


“There is no factual or data predicate that supports promulgating additional rules concerning aircraft seat dimensions,” they wrote.

By:  Ian Duncan