June 12, 2023

Duckworth-Baldwin Provisions to Help Ensure Real-Life Conditions Are Considered in Federal Aircraft Emergency Evacuation Standards Included in FAA Reauthorization Bill


[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senator and pilot Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)—member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (CST) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations and Innovation—and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) successfully secured a modified version of their legislation, the Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin (EVAC) Act, in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2023. This version of the EVAC Act will require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to evaluate its emergency evacuation standards for aircraft to ensure that they reflect real-world conditions, including the presence of carry-on bags and passengers who may be senior citizens, children or persons with disabilities. Right now, the FAA’s standards require that passengers—regardless of age or ability—be able to evacuate aircraft within 90 seconds, but recent simulation testing failed to adequately take into account whether a flight is full or mostly empty, or other basic conditions Americans deal with every time they fly. The FAA reauthorization bill would extend FAA’s funding and authorities through the Fiscal Year 2028.

“With a modified version of my EVAC Act included in the FAA reauthorization bill, we’re sending a clear message: in the event of an emergency, the safety of the flying public comes first,” said Duckworth. “It should not—it cannot—take another tragedy to bring our aircraft evacuation standards up to date. I’m proud to have worked with Senator Baldwin on this important effort to establish an emergency evacuation standard that considers real-life conditions to help make flying safer for all.”

“Every American should be able to fly with dignity and peace of mind knowing that safety protocols are in place that take every passenger into account. Our bill ensures the Federal Aviation Administration considers realistic circumstances like heavy luggage and passengers of different ages, sizes, and abilities when checking whether evacuation and safety plans are effective,” said Baldwin. “I am proud to lead the charge with Senator Duckworth to ensure Americans and their loved are safe while flying and will continue working to get our critical legislation over the finish line as part of the FAA reauthorization bill.”

Included in the evaluation of evacuation standards that the modified EVAC Act would require, would be the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) recommended study on the risk posed by carry-on bags during emergency evacuations. This recommendation came after a 2016 emergency evacuation of an American Airlines 767 at O’Hare.

The FAA limited recent in-person simulations to test subjects who were all adults, under age 60, despite the fact that senior citizens, children and persons with disabilities may also be present on a flight. Additionally, according to CBS News, the tests did not include the presence of obstacles like carry-on baggage that could slow down an evacuation. These tests were also conducted in groups of just 60, while Boeing 737 MAX 8 seating capacity, for instance, ranges from 162 to 178. Then-FAA Administrator Steve Dickson even conceded the tests “provide useful, but not necessarily definitive information…” 

The modified EVAC Act in the FAA reauthorization bill would require modernization and improvements to aircraft evacuation standards by requiring the FAA to conduct a comprehensive study on aircraft evacuation and empanel a committee of experts and stakeholders—including representatives of the disability community, senior citizens and pediatricians—to evaluate gaps in current evacuations standards and operating procedures and make recommendations. Additionally, the FAA would be required to initiate a rulemaking on any recommendations the FAA Administrator deems appropriate.

The FAA would also be required to report study findings, committee recommendations and the Administrator’s plan to implement any such recommendations.

The FAA study on evacuations would include:

  • Prospective risk analysis, not just evaluation of past incidents.
  • Recommendations for how to improve evacuation regulations and demonstrations to ensure they account for passengers with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs or other mobility assistive devices.
  • Research on risk posed by carry-on bags recommended by NTSB.
  • Whether each new generation of aircraft should be required to undergo full-scale in-person evacuation testing.
  • An assessment of the following evacuation conditions:
  1. Presence of passengers of different ages, including infants, children and senior citizens;
  2. Presence of passengers with disabilities;
  3. Presence of passengers who have difficulty speaking or are non-verbal;
  4. Presence of passengers who do not speak English;
  5. Presence of carry-on luggage and personal items such as purse, briefcase or backpack
  6. Seat size and spacing;
  7. Passenger load; and
  8. Presence of service animals.

A bill summary can be found here.