A series of airplane emergency evacuation tests this month and in December may be the last hope for passengers pleading for more legroom in crowded coach cabins.

By Randy Diamond

San Antonio Express-News

November 16, 2019

A series of airplane emergency evacuation tests this month and in December may be the last hope for passengers pleading for more legroom in crowded coach cabins.

The Federal Aviation Administration is conducting the tests over 12 days in Oklahoma City to see if passengers can escape a plane in 90 seconds in an emergency — despite tight seating conditions. The agency won’t disclose the test dates.

“This will be the first time we are running a study looking specifically at the influence of varying seat pitch and width on egress time,” said Stacey L. Sinke-McKee, a medical research official at the FAA.

It took a lot of effort to get the agency to conduct the tests. Consumer groups battled the FAA for three years, even suing the regulator in federal court, demanding a review as to whether planes can be safely evacuated given the increasingly cramped quarters.

The FAA agreed to conduct the test after Congress in 2018 ordered it to do so.

Under current standards, airplanes must be able to be evacuated within 90 seconds, even as seat pitch — the distance between a passenger’s seat and the seat in front of it — has shrunk up to 5 inches. Over the last decade, airlines have added dozens of seats to their planes, reducing passenger space, in an effort to maximum profits.

Now, as part of its charge from Congress, the FAA must set minimum seat width and pitch standards after conducting the tests.

Airline crashes are extremely rare, and passengers’ chances of survival have improved because of better aircraft design. Newer plane features include sturdier seats that stay in place in an accident and fire-resistant interiors. But the shrinking amount of legroom could be a problem.

Seat pitch is as low as 30 inches on mainstream carriers and 28 inches on budget carriers. The average seat width has shrunk to 17 inches from 17.5 inches.

Angling for legroom

The FAA, which last conducted evacuation tests more than two decades ago, has no authority to regulate seat comfort, but it does regulate safety. That’s the opening consumer groups are hoping for — forcing airlines to provide more space if passengers can’t evacuate tight coach cabins within 90 seconds.

“Our argument is that small seats are not just a comfort issue but a safety issue,” said Paul Hudson, president of Flyer Rights, an advocacy group for airline passengers.

As the evacuation tests get under way, a big issue is whether the test subjects will accurately reflect everyday air travelers, including individuals who could slow down the evacuations, such as seniors, children and the disabled.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., who sponsored the evacuation test provision in the House of Representatives, said in an Oct. 31 letter to FAA administrators that he is concerned the tests won’t reflect the actual flying public. He said the 720 test participants don’t include individuals under the age of 18 or over 60, individuals with disabilities or passengers with service animals.

“This is completely unacceptable and unrealistic,” he said.

Citing Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics data, Cohen said 25.5 million Americans have a travel-limiting disability, and that 1 million passengers brought emotional support animals on flights in 2018.

A coalition of 10 consumer groups sent a letter last month to FAA administrator Steve Dickson and Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao complaining about the validity of the upcoming evacuation tests.

The letter said the agency’s current evacuation testing standards, which haven’t been updated in more than 20 years, do not take in consideration numerous factors that could prevent a safe evacuation in 90 seconds.

“For example, the current standards do not account for the presence of parents who may be separated from their children due to airlines’ family seating policies or significant numbers of passengers attempting to bring personal items like roller bags with them as they evacuate,” the letter said.

Another issue they cited in the letter: American men and women have become more obese in recent years even as seat pitch and width have decreased. The groups questioned whether the test will account for more overweight passengers.

Zinke-McKee said the FAA already knows factors such as luggage, lap-held children and emotional support animals slow down the evacuation process, but she said they won’t be part of the tests. The agency, she said, wants to keep the evacuation tests simple.

“If you get too many variables, it is very difficult to come up with meaningful conclusions,” she said.

As far as baggage, she added, “You’re required to leave your luggage behind in an evacuation — you’re required to follow the orders of the flight crew.”

She said the test subjects will include a variety of physical types, with plenty of overweight “passengers.”

“Depending on which data source you choose to adhere to, Oklahoma is either the third or tenth most obese state in the U.S.,” she said. “So based on that, we believe that if you choose a random sample of subjects from our area, you will have a good representation of the larger demographic.”

In recent congressional testimony, FAA officials said the tests would be conducted in a dark setting and with half of the evacuation doors unable to open. Deputy FAA administrator Dan Elwell said the tests will include lap-held children and animals, a statement contradicted by Zinke-McKee.

One of the difficulties with the tests is that the volunteers know it’s not a real emergency, said Anthony Brickhouse, an associate professor of aerospace and occupational safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“In a real evacuation, you’re going to get a shock factor, humans tend to freeze,” he said.

Brickhouse said he he’s concerned that the 90-second evacuation rule may be “highly ambitious.” Factors such as limited seat pitch and passengers wearing their headphones, not listening to safety announcements, all raise questions about how fast an emergency evacuation could take.

When an aviation accident occurs, he said, “Getting out of the plane quickly is imperative.”

Nevertheless, FAA officials said investigators found in two recent crashes — the Asiana Flight 214 crash in San Francisco in 2013 and the AeroMexico Connect Flight 2431 accident in Durango, Mexico in 2018 — passengers were able to evacuate the planes within 90 seconds.

Three of the 307 passengers on the Asiana flight died when the plane hit a seawall in its final descent to San Francisco International Airport. No deaths were reported on the AeroMexico Connect flight that crashed on takeoff at Durango International Airport.

The FAA is expected to take up to a year to issue the minimum pitch and width requirements as agency officials study the issue after the tests are complete.

The agency has the authority to increase legroom and seat width, but it can also trim the space requirements.

“Properly done evacuation tests are essential to getting fair results,” said Kurt Ebenhock, executive director of Travel Fairness Now, one of the consumer groups battling the FAA. “Rigged tests could give the green light to unsafe and inhumane airline seating.”