Over the years, the airline industry has had to make concessions on comfort in order to accommodate as many passengers as possible, and nowhere is this most apparent than in the size of typical airplane seats. In fact, since 1985, passenger seating on many major U.S. airlines shrank as much as 2-4 inches. Airplane seats have been reduced so much, that it’s no longer just a matter of comfort, but of passenger safety.
The FAA announced last week that it is going to investigate whether airline seats are too small to ensure a safe and timely exit for passengers in the event of an emergency. The agency said Thursday that it plans on conducting evacuation testing in November to determine if airline seats allow travelers to exit the plane within 90 seconds, which is the standard safety requirement for all certified commercial aircraft.
During a recent hearing with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn, expressed concerns about aircraft seats being too small, as the size of the average American is steadily increasing.
Cohen even referenced the Boeing crashes that took place earlier this year, saying “People couldn’t get out of the plane in 90 seconds. Why did you not comply with the seat act?” He stated that factors like passenger height, weight, and physical disabilities should all be taken into account when it comes to redesigning aircraft to make them safer.
"Americans are getting bigger, so seat size is important, but it's got to be looked at in the context of safety," said FAA Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell. “Survivability today is much, much better … but you’re right, we need to do testing on evacuations. We’re going to do live testing.”
Elwell said the FAA plans to test aircraft safety in November with what he says is a "good demographic sampling" of 720 volunteers, including small children and animals.
The testing will take place at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, in Oklahoma City, and authorities will use the results to collect 3,000 data points. That information, as mandated by last year’s FAA reauthorization, will help to determine how small airplane seats can safely get, and how close rows of seats can be to one another.
In a statement, the FAA said it was required to “issue regulations to establish minimum dimensions for airplane seat width, length, and pitch that are necessary for the safety of passengers.” The agency plans to complete evacuation testing by the end of the year in order to “determine what, if any, regulatory changes are necessary to implement the requirement.”
Gone in 90 seconds
The 90-second rule may sound like an arbitrary number, but it is actually a standard set as part of the certification process for all aircraft manufacturers. They are required to demonstrate that an aircraft, at maximum capacity, can be completely evacuated within 90 seconds using half of the total number of emergency exits.
Use of only half of the exits simulates the potential for failed evacuation devices or exits blocked due to fire or structural damage. "They try to simulate the worst-case scenario," said the FAA’s acting Deputy Associate Administrator Lirio Liu. She added that the simulations will take place in a dark environment, with half of the plane's exits blocked. Flight attendants will not know which exits are available, all in order to mimic the uncertainty of a real-world situation.
Ninety seconds was established as the maximum evacuation time because tests have shown that, in a post-crash fire, conditions conducive to flashover are unlikely to occur within that time span. However, the experience of actual evacuations, especially unexpected ones from full aircraft where the abnormal situation occurs suddenly at or soon after landing, indicates that evacuation times usually exceed durations demonstrated for certification purposes.
It’s for this reason that regular testing is vital for the airline industry, because failure to evacuate the aircraft in a timely manner may lead to the death or injury of crew and passengers.