Senators Push for FAA Evacuation Tests to More Closely Reflect Real-Life Conditions

Senators Tammy Duckworth and Tammy Baldwin call on the FAA to regulate evacuation testing more strictly. Pictured above is Senator Duckworth. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced legislation last week that would place tighter regulations on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) evacuation testing, ensuring the tests more accurately reflect real-life conditions. The bill is called the Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin (EVAC) Act

The current FAA evacuation testing standards were established in 1967 and have not seen any major changes since their inception. The main requirement of evacuation testing, or the “90 second test,” requires that a full plane of passengers and crew be evacuated in 90 seconds or less, a metric assigned to the time it would take for fire to engulf the cabin.

The tests are performed in an empty hangar, with a regulated mix of male and female passengers as well as passengers over 50 years of age. Three life-size dolls must be carried to simulate infants, and 50% of the exits must be blocked. In addition, carry-on baggage and luggage items are placed around the plane to simulate minor obstructions.

Beyond these standards, there is little else to reflect real-life emergency conditions. There is no accounting for disabled passengers, different age groups, additional luggage, emotional support animals, obstructions due to use of under-seat electronics, etc. There is also no smoke used in the tests, and the volunteer participants know what’s coming and are prepared for the “emergency” situation.

The proposed legislation would require the FAA to consider variables such as a passenger’s height and weight, increased quantity of carry-on baggage, passengers with disabilities, and passengers who do not speak English. The bill would also address the fact that airplane seats have changed immensely since the ’70s, yet the FAA test does not account for these changes in their testing. Seats have gotten smaller, the pitch of seats has changed, and seating aisles have become more narrow. 

This is not the first time that the federal government has become involved in the conversation about regulating seat sizes. In 2018, Congress directed the FAA to establish minimum seat dimensions for passenger safety. The FAA still has not done so, stating “the Agency has not updated its evacuation standards recently because of high rates of accident survivability.” This “high rate of survivability” is credited to updates and amendments to the design of exit doors and lighting, seat cushion construction to decrease flammability, and changes in design criteria for evacuation slides. 

The EVAC Act has already received support from C. B. “Sully” Sullenberger, the United Airlines pilot who landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in 2009 following the loss of an engine after flying through a flock of geese. Sullenberger cites that he has seen “firsthand how challenging it can be” landing an aircraft in an unexpected emergency situation. He supports the bill and the improvements it would make to improve the safety of cabin passengers and crew. 

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