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FAA bill would force the agency to craft 'real world' rules for airplane evacuations

A Japan Airlines jet burst into flames after colliding with a Japanese coast guard plane at Tokyo's Haneda Airport in January. All 379 people on board the Japan Airlines flight were safely evacuated, but the incident raised questions about evacuation standards.
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Jiji Press/AFP via Getty Images
A Japan Airlines jet burst into flames after colliding with a Japanese coast guard plane at Tokyo's Haneda Airport in January. All 379 people on board the Japan Airlines flight were safely evacuated, but the incident raised questions about evacuation standards.

WASHINGTON — If an airplane has to be evacuated, the Federal Aviation Administration says all passengers must be capable of getting out within 90 seconds.

But critics say the agency's testing standards have not kept pace with the shrinking size of airplane seats — which means more people jammed into the cabin — or the changing composition of the flying public.

"This is ridiculous. This is not how we travel today," said U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) in an interview.

Duckworth argues the FAA's current tests fail to take real world conditions into consideration.

"They did not mimic the seat density of a modern aircraft. They had no carry-on baggage. They had nobody over the age of 60 and nobody under the age of 18," said Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot who lost both her legs in the Iraq war.

"They didn't have anybody with a disability. Of course they were able to evacuate the aircraft in 90 seconds," she said.

A year and counting

For more than a year, Duckworth has been pushing a bill known as the Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin (EVAC) Act that would require the FAA to reconsider its airplane evacuation standards.

Now that legislation is poised to become law as part of a broader FAA reauthorization that passed the Senate last week. The House is expected to take up the bill as soon as Tuesday.

The FAA says it is reviewing the bill.

In the real world, evacuations are very rare — but they do happen. In January, a Japan Airlines jet burst into flames after colliding with a Japanese Coast Guard plane on a runway at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. The crash killed five people in the Coast Guard aircraft.

It's been years since the F.A.A. has changed passenger evacuation standards for commercial airlines. That may change soon.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
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Getty Images
It's been years since the F.A.A. has changed passenger evacuation standards for commercial airlines. That may change soon.

But remarkably, all 379 people on board the Japan Airlines Airbus A350 evacuated safely before the plane was engulfed in flames. The flight attendants were widely praised for their calm and professional response. Safety experts say the passengers did a good job, too.

"They didn't panic. They helped each other," said Stephen Creamer, a safety consultant and a former senior director at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

"Most important, they left things behind, and they went and got off the airplane," Creamer told NPR.

In an emergency, passengers are told to always leave their carry-on bags behind because they can damage the inflatable slides or slow down the evacuation — though in practice, that hasn't always been the case.

The Japan Airlines evacuation wasn't perfect, either. After the impact, it took about 6 minutes for the emergency exits on the plane to open. In a video posted on social media, one young passenger can be heard politely urging the flight attendants to evacuate the plane quickly as the cabin of the jumbo jet fills with smoke.

It took a full 18 minutes from the moment of impact before the captain finally left the plane — prompting a fresh round of questions about whether the FAA's 90-second evacuation standard is still realistic.

Evacuation standards date to the 1960s

The agency's current evacuation standards date back to the 1960s. In order for an airplane to be certified, the manufacturer has to show that a full passenger load can exit the plane within 90 seconds with half of the exits blocked.

In 2018, Congress ordered the FAA to look at whether changes to seat size, aisle width and passenger demographics are hindering evacuation of passengers.

Four years later, the FAA submitted a report to Congress that largely dismissed those concerns.

"Currently flying seat pitches using seats of similar size or smaller than those used in this project can accommodate and not impede egress for 99% of the American population," according to the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute.

But that report revealed that the agency's latest tests look very different from today's aircraft cabins. They involve only 60 occupants — fewer than the more than 100 who typically fill jets today — none of whom are children and seniors, or travelers who require service animals or wheelchairs, in part because of ethical considerations.

When the FAA asked for public input on the minimum seat dimensions that are necessary for passenger safety, it received more than 26,000 comments. An FAA spokesman says the agency is still reviewing them.

Some stakeholders are tired of waiting for tougher testing standards.

"We are concerned that current regulations for certification of the aircraft cabin don't reflect our real world conditions," said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines.

"We don't need the first test on this to be an active emergency," Nelson said in a statement. "Let's get real now!"

The EVAC Act would require the FAA to conduct a comprehensive study on aircraft evacuation, and to assemble a group of experts and stakeholders to evaluate gaps in current standards and advise the agency on possible changes.

"I want them to simulate an actual passenger load, of what an average airliner flies with," Duckworth said. "Now tell me how long it takes to evacuate the aircraft."

"I think our emergency responders deserve to know," she said, "because they're the ones who are going to have to respond if there's an aircraft emergency, and we're on the ground and we need to get people out."

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.