Holiday travelers packed tightly inside airliners this month might easily ignore flight crew instructions on how to safely exit the aircraft in the case of an emergency.
What they may not know is that should such an event take place, federal standards require evacuating the plane within 90 seconds of it coming to a rest.
Some lawmakers are questioning whether that metric is realistic.
“I’ve grown up in the aviation industry, and one of the things that those in aviation circles say is that FAA regulations — and aviation regulations in the Army, as well — are written in blood because they’re always reactive,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) told The Hill.
Duckworth, a former helicopter pilot who lost both legs in 2004 when her Black Hawk was shot down in Iraq, says the 90-second rule fails to adequately take into account certain real-life conditions, like the presence of elderly flyers, young children or those with disabilities.
“They used able-bodied adults under the age of 60, and there were only 60 people [per test group],” Duckworth told The Hill, referring to testing conducted in 2019 and 2020 to determine the impact of smaller seat sizes on fights.
“They didn’t simulate the presence of children or people with disabilities, they didn’t have any carry-on luggage in the aircraft, they didn’t simulate passengers of different heights and weights, people who didn’t speak English.”
Duckworth and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) are introducing the Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin (EVAC) Act, which calls on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take into account such factors as part of its evacuation standards.
The bill, backed by several flight attendant and pilots unions as well as disability advocacy groups, is set to be introduced Thursday. Duckworth suggested the legislation could be included as part of the FAA reauthorization Congress must pass in 2023.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) — who authored legislation that spurred testing for safe seat sizes and who has called on the FAA to reexamine its study parameters — will be introducing companion legislation in the House.
The push already has one high-profile backer with experience in a worst-case scenario: Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, whose 2009 splash-landing story in the Hudson River was made into an eponymous film with Tom Hanks in the title role.
Sullenberger told The Hill his real-life story of guiding an Airbus A320 through an emergency landing and evacuation illustrates the need for real-world safety guidelines.
He said current testing “does not reflect possible realities in real life” and “for a no-notice, unplanned evacuation, you have the deck stacked against you.”
“When they do evacuation demonstrations to prove that an airplane can be evacuated in 90 seconds, it needs to be given real-world conditions,” Sullenberger said.
“Anything less than that is setting up people for failure when they are on an airplane and suddenly have to evacuate.”
Members of the House and Senate transportation panels have pressed the FAA over its evacuation rules following the agency’s last reauthorization in 2018.
The FAA concluded in a report to Congress in March that “the overall level of safety in evacuations is very high” while acknowledging “some areas for improvement.” Former FAA Administrator Steve Dickson agreed earlier this year that previous testing provided “useful, but not necessarily definitive information” on safe seat sizes for all travelers.
Seat sizes and the distance between rows have shrunk over the past few decades, while Americans’ waists have increased — to the point that approximately only 1 in 5 passengers can easily fit in airplane seats, according to the group FlyersRights.
The FAA is currently considering seat sizes necessary for travelers’ safety and held a comment period this fall for the public to weigh in. They received more than 26,000 responses, with many lamenting “cramped” and “uncomfortable” spaces.
Scores also dismissed the 90-second rule.
“I have witnessed singular passengers who could not evacuate their seating row in 90 seconds,” one wrote, “Let alone make it out [of] the plane.”
Airlines for America and the International Air Transport Association — the groups representing major U.S. airlines — have argued current regulations already account for safely evacuating “a broad range of passengers” and expanded testing faces “practical and ethical limitations.”
The groups urged the FAA to stay focused on “Safety and Not Comfort or Convenience.”
The agency hasn’t said if it will act in response to the comments.
In its prior study, the FAA concluded the average distance between rows, known as the seat pitch, “can accommodate and not impede egress for 99 [percent] of the American population.”
Duckworth said “there is a question of the seat size and pitch, but it could also be a question of how they stow baggage or how the exit aisles are configured.” And she pushed back on those who would cast doubt on the need for more fulsome testing.
“We do this similar type of testing in other areas that are universally accepted, like crash-testing automobiles, for example,” she said.
“No. 1: Can we meet the standard that exists right now? And we don’t know if we can or not.”
The FAA noted in its request for comments in August that it “established the 90-second requirement as a uniform, repeatable standard under specific conditions, not a standard that the FAA expects to be met in every actual emergency evacuation.”
And human behavior can often impact whether planes hit the 90-second target.
For example, a plane that suffered an engine explosion and fire on the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in 2016 took roughly two and a half minutes to evacuate — in part because some passengers decamped all three usable exits with their carry-on bags.
“The rules and assumptions that are made about evacuations need to reflect real-world reality,” Sullenberger said.