Airlines have been downsizing their seats for years so they can jam more people in. That has led the FAA to set new standards to ensure passengers can evacuate a plane in 90 seconds or less. But that testing has been widely criticized for not taking people with disabilities into account and for not using full planes. Now, a U.S. senator is looking to make changes.
In a simulated cabin that can be filled with smoke and plunged into darkness, the FAA in 2019 tested the safe size of airline seats and how passengers can get out in 90 seconds or less.
While the volunteer passengers in the simulated evacuations had varying seat sizes, they did not have to deal with real life obstacles like smoke, the dark or even luggage. And they were in groups of 60 — nowhere near a full plane load.
“We are going to try to minimize the variables to the ones that are important for this particular test,” said Stacey Zinke-McKee of the FAA about that test.
Airplane seat width is already down as much as four inches over the last 30 years to as little as 16 inches wide. Seat pitch — the distance between rows — has shrunk from about 35 inches to 31 and in some cases as little as 28 inches.
The FAA said it found that seat size and spacing did not adversely affect the success of emergency evacuations. But because all participants were able bodied adults under 60, then-FAA Administrator Steve Dickson acknowledged the results were “useful” but “not necessarily definitive.”
Captain Sully Sullenberger, best known for landing his flight in New York’s Hudson River and allowing all the passengers to survive, said it took more than three minutes to evacuate everyone partly because the plane was filling up with water from back to front. But, additionally, the plane was full of passengers.
Six democratic senators recently urged the FAA to reconsider its findings saying not accurately reflecting the flying public is one of its “most glaring flaws.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both legs while serving in Iraq, is now proposing legislation requiring a new FAA seat size study looking at how real life conditions including children, seniors and the disabled as well as the presence carry-on bags impacts evacuation times.
“When you’re testing with are not real world conditions, then that gets me worried,” Duckworth said. “Airlines are traveling now with just about every seat filled. You can’t just practice evacuating an aircraft that is only 30% full because that’s not the way commercial aviation looks today.”
The FAA says it is going through more than 26,000 public comments about airline seats, but it followed guidelines in its testing laid out by Congress. The airlines say safety is their top priority and they will continue to work with the FAA.