Flyers Rights questions FAA evidence for not setting seat standards

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Consumer advocacy group Flyers Rights is hitting back at the FAA’s decision not to regulate aircraft seats, calling into question the evidence supplied by the agency for why present day seat pitch and width – coupled with passenger size – do not warrant minimum seat space standards.

“Of course we disagree with the FAA,” Flyers Rights head of communications Kendall Creighton told Runway Girl Network after the administration found “no evidence that there is an immediate safety issue necessitating rulemaking at this time” .

Said Creighton: “The summary of the materials they released are that seat size does not affect evacuation times. Rather, the delay comes from opening the exit doors and queuing in the aisles. None of their video proof show a complete evacuation; they were provided just to show how no passenger was delayed in getting out of the row.”

She added that the evidence supplied by the FAA in support of its decision “appears to be five cherry-picked videos, plus a sworn affidavit by a senior technical official at FAA”.

Indeed, the FAA points to five videos – three supplied by Airbus, one by Boeing and one by Embraer – plus their accompanying statements, as well as the affidavit from senior technical specialist for aircraft cabin safety and survivability Jeffrey Gardlin, who said he has “personally witnessed full evacuation demonstrations for 18 different models of transport category airplanes”.

Explaining its rationale for not regulating seat size in a 2 July letter to Flyers Rights, the FAA said, “The time it takes passengers to get out of their seats, even if those seats are relatively narrow and close together, is less than the time it takes for the emergency exits to begin functioning and for the line that begins forming in the aisles to clear.”

It said it has no evidence that a typical passenger – “even a larger one” – will take more than a couple of seconds to get out of his or her seat.

The FAA was compelled to explain itself after the DC Circuit ordered the agency to justify its conclusion that seat spacing does not impact the safety or speed of passenger evacuations, after being sued by Flyers Rights.

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Providing color about the three test videos it shared with the FAA, Airbus said they were taken from areas with typical seat pitch installations of 28 inches, 29 inches and 30 inches. “It can be seen, that in no configuration the seat pitch definition has a driving influence, neither on the ability of passengers to move into the longitudinal aisle nor the time needed to do so,” noted the airframer.

What the FAA and Airbus fail to stress, however, is that the videos (available via download) are not at all representative of real-life evacuation scenarios. The individuals chosen to participate in these tests are clearly highly mobile, and of average or even slim build. Meanwhile, nearly 70% of American adults are either overweight or obese, according to the American Heart Association. Gardlin’s statement does note that test evacuations pose some risk of injury to volunteers, and so the FAA chooses not to require the young and elderly to participate. And he states that human panic is a factor in real evacuations.

However, in the videos, nobody stops to retrieve their carry-on bags – an extremely common occurrence in real life, about which the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has raised red flags, most recently in a report to the FAA about what it calls “insufficient” actions to ensure safe cabin evacuations, following a Board meeting regarding the October 2016 engine failure of an American Airlines flight in Chicago.

Journalists covering the passenger experience space will not be surprised about the content of the videos supplied by the FAA. After all, Airbus famously used gym members and its own fit employees when it conducted its 90-second evacuation test for the A380.

The Wall Street Journal in 2015 reported that the FAA was seeking funding for its Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) to study seating density, with an agency employee noting at the time, “It’s something we have to kind of step back and see what the effect is. There might be an effect. We don’t know.” It’s notable, then, that the FAA did not supply its own video evidence of passengers evacuating high-density aircraft.

It may seem ironic to some that an agency charged with regulating civil aviation to promote transportation safety in the US apparently needs to turn to industry for additional supporting data. But the FAA has been increasingly using a risk-based approach to address emerging safety risks, telling RGN late last year that, “In some cases, for new seating configurations that have not been proven, we may elect to be involved in the approval process to assure the new configuration is not introducing a safety hazard.” And of course, in some cases it may not elect to do so.

Flyers Rights has been seeking a moratorium on the seat squeeze on board aircraft for some time. On the issue of seat pitch, specifically, the group has suggested that the line should be drawn at 28-inch seat pitch. However, the FAA in its letter to the group said it believes it is “unlikely” that seat pitch will go below 27 inches under current technology and regulations. Even so, it will not regulate airlines at the 27-inch line.

The FAA is presently being audited by the DOT IG, which will assess how it develops and updates its emergency evacuation standards.

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1 Comment

  1. Tom McDonald

    Big / obese people (like me) don’t expect fellow passengers to subsidize their hotel room with a king bed versus a queen or their meal with an 8 oz . fillet instead of a 6oz. Why should we expect our fellow smaller passengers to pay for our larger more spacious seats on a flight?