WASHINGTON – In response to a federal appeals court case, the Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday that it doesn't need to regulate airline seating because evacuation tests prove there is enough room to maneuver, despite consumer complaints about cramped quarters.
The group FlyersRights.org challenged the FAA at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit over concerns that tighter seating with larger passengers could prevent evacuations within the goal of 90 seconds. The appeals panel ordered FAA nearly a year ago to review its safety rules for seating.
In a six-page filing Tuesday, Dorenda Baker, FAA’s executive director for aviation safety, said there is “no evidence” seat dimensions “hamper the speed of passenger evacuation, or that increasing passenger size creates an evacuation issue.”
But Paul Hudson, the lawyer who filed the case as president of FlyersRights.org, said the FAA’s response proves his group’s argument that full-scale evacuation tests haven’t been conducted in decades. As seating has grown tighter, passengers have grown larger, with three out of four Americans now overweight or obese, he said.
“If you don’t do the tests, obvious if you stick your head in the sand, you’re not going to have evidence,” Hudson said.
The lawsuit had noted that the distance between seatbacks, which the industry calls “pitch,” has shrunk from 35 inches before Congress deregulated the industry in 1978 to 31 inches on average today, with some at 28 inches. Seat width has also dropped an inch or two from the previous 18-inch average.
But the FAA said there is no evidence that larger passengers will take more than a couple of seconds to get out of their seats. The FAA also said there is no evidence that the smaller distance between rows “would increase human panic,” as the lawsuit argued.
The key to a brisk evacuation, according to FAA, is the sequence. The plane comes to a halt, flight attendants determine that exits are safe, deploy slides or open over-wing exits, and passengers remove seat belts.
“Passengers, regardless of their size, all use those first few seconds to get out of their seats, then either enter the aisle or wait to enter the aisle,” said Jeffrey Gardlin, the senior technical specialist for aircraft cabin security and survivability at FAA.
Gardlin has witnessed 24 full evacuation demonstrations for 18 models of planes. He acknowledged in an eight-page affidavit that FAA has evidence that a passenger’s girth can hinder getting through an over-wing exit.
“However, the FAA has not seen any evidence that girth, in the current American population, meaningfully affects the speed at which a person can exit their seat or enter the aisle, or that girth otherwise creates an evacuation issue,” Gardlin said.
Seating remains contentious for airline passengers. The House has voted to require FAA to set minimum standards for airline seating, although without dictating the specifications. But the Senate has declined to get into that fight considered part of the competition between airlines.
The Transportation Department’s inspector general announced June 18 that it would audit the FAA’s evacuation standards, given changes in the airline industry and in passengers, at the request of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members.
FlyersRights.org challenged the FAA in court for allowing airlines and manufacturers to squeeze more passengers onto flights. As seating got more cramped, the group argued there is a safety risk for evacuations and a health risk for passengers who could develop deep-vein thrombosis.
The appeals panel called out the FAA for its “vaporous record” of evacuation tests.
The FAA cited studies that "say nothing about and do not appear to control for seat pitch, width or any other seat dimension," U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Millett wrote for the court.
“That makes no sense,” Millett wrote.
But after its year-long review, the FAA declined to start a new rulemaking on seat size. The FAA posted videos of evacuation tests from Boeing, Airbus and Embraer demonstrating orderly evacuations.
“For the reasons stated herein, we continue to decline to initiate rulemaking based on your petition,” Baker said.
Boeing said in three-page letter accompanying the video that delays in evacuation tend to result from “the natural hesitation” of some passengers to jump onto an escape slide.
Boeing said it has conducted full-scale evacuation demonstrations in the dark with debris in the aisles on planes with 28-inch pitch, including the 767-300 with 351 passengers in April 1996.
“Therefore, based on the extensive testing, it is the flow rate at the exits and not the seat pitch that is the principle factor that dictates the speed at which an airplane can be evacuated,” Tom Galantowicz, engineering director of Boeing Commercial Airplanes said in the letter.
Airbus and Embraer offered similar statements. Embraer, for example, tested evacuations of the 190-100 with 116 passengers in rows with 28- and 29-inch pitch.
“As observed in the video there is no concern regarding the path of the evacuee from the seat to access the cabin aisle,” the manufacturer said in a four-page statement.