National Consumers League

If you care about cramped airline seats, you should care about the FAA’s evacuation tests

Last month, I had the pleasure of testifying before the House Aviation Subcommittee on the implementation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2018 reauthorization bill. My testimony touched on many of the pressing consumer protection priorities for airline passengers teed up by the 2016 and 2018 FAA reauthorization bills. 

The big news coming out of that hearing, however, was FAA Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell announcing that the FAA will this November conduct its first evacuation tests with live participants in two decades. While this may sound like the kind of announcement only politicos should care about, it’s actually a very big deal for anyone who flies 

Why is that, you may ask?  

FAA regulations require that the “maximum capacity” of an aircraft must be able to be evacuated in less than 90 seconds in an emergency. The analogy is to the “maximum capacity” signs you may have seen in conference rooms, hotels, or other public spaces. Since the 1990’s, airlines have gotten fuller, seats have gotten smaller, and more bags and support animals have been brought into the cabin. Despite these changes, FAA has not updated its evacuation standards and has been content to allow airlines to self-certify that they can meet the 90-second threshold, largely based on computer simulations. 

This all changed last July when Congress passed the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act which requires FAA to set minimum seat size standards. That’s why Dan Elwell announced that the FAA will be conducting the tests in November. The airlines, which have been pulling down record profits in recent years as they’ve steadily crammed more butts into more and smaller seats, will almost certainly want the FAA to give its blessing that their sardine cans are safe.  

Unfortunately, the FAA seems intent on granting them their wish. The advisory committee it appointed to provide feedback on the evacuation standards is packed with industry insiders and hamstrung by its own charter from considering seat sizes and seat pitch (the room between seats) as part of its recommendations. The DOT’s Office of Inspector General has an ongoing audit of the evacuation standards, but there’s no indication that the FAA will wait on the results of that audit before it conducts its tests. 

We can’t let the FAA rubber stamp the airlines’ current inhumane and potentially unsafe seating configurations. That’s why NCL, along with a coalition of consumer and flyers rights groups this week sent a letter to the FAA and the DOT urging them to update their evacuation standards before the November tests. We’re calling on the agency to update its evacuation testing standards to account for things like the presence of passengers with disabilities, parents who are separated from their children (thanks in no small part to rising seat reservation fees), full overhead bins, and passengers who insist on taking their bags with them when they evacuate (or, even worse, filming themselves evacuating). These are all factors that are likely to slow down evacuations, but FAA’s evacuation testing standards don’t account for them. 

Updating evacuation testing standards may sound like wonky, inside-the-Beltway bureaucratese, but the consequences of not doing so could be deadly.