February 08, 2024

Senate’s FAA Reauthorization Bill Includes Duckworth-Baldwin Provision to Help Improve Aircraft Evacuation Standards


[WASHINGTON, DC] – U.S. Senator and pilot Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)—a 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 included their Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin (EVAC) Act in the bipartisan FAA Reauthorization Act of 2023 that passed through committee today and is now expected to be considered by the full Senate. The legislation would ensure the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does more to prioritize passenger safety by finally updating its emergency evacuation standards for aircraft to reflect real-world conditions, including the presence of carry-on bags and passengers who may be senior citizens, children or persons with disabilities. Currently, 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. If passed, the FAA reauthorization bill would extend FAA’s funding and authorities through the Fiscal Year 2028.

“By including my EVAC Act in the bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill that passed through committee today, we’re sending a clear message that the safety of the flying public comes first,” said Duckworth. “It should not—and 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 and I will do everything I can to ensure it is signed into law.”

“Americans expect that when they get on a plane, every precaution has been taken to ensure their safety and the safety of their loved ones in the event of an emergency,” said Baldwin. “There’s clear evidence that existing evacuation standards are failing to consider real life circumstances and we can and must do more to protect Americans when they fly.”

Included in the evaluation of evacuation standards that this Duckworth-Baldwin provision 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 emergency evacuation of Japan Airlines Flight 516 last month in Tokyo following a collision with a coast guard plane—which took roughly 5 minutes to complete—revived longstanding questions about the accuracy of in-person evacuation testing in the U.S. evacuation and underscored the need to ensure FAA’s emergency evacuation standard is rooted in reality, especially after the latest simulation tests conducted by the FAA did not take into account real-world conditions that reflect typical flights today. The FAA limited recent in-person simulations to 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 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 using the link here.