The Korea Herald


[Tammy Duckworth] Realistic FAA evacuation standards

By Korea Herald Photo

Published : Jan. 4, 2023 - 05:34

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Imagine you’re crammed into your middle seat -- behind a crying baby, of course -- and a wave of turbulence rocks the plane. Then another. Then that singular, ominous “ding” as the flight crew kindly urges -- demands, really -- that passengers return to their seat and buckle up. They’re sorry for the inconvenience, but it’s for your own safety.

Imagine, then, that the turbulence doesn’t stop. It gets worse. People begin to panic. Somehow, though, miraculously, the pilots manage to safely land the plane. Sure, it’s a rough landing, but at least you’re on the ground.

You’re relieved -- until you realize it’s not over. With your adrenaline racing, your heart pounding, the flight attendants shout that you have to evacuate without delay, as the fuel tanks might be damaged and could spark a fire at any moment.

Right now, Federal Aviation Administration regulations mandate that, in the event of an emergency, passengers must be able to evacuate an aircraft within 90 seconds -- meaning that airlines must ensure that there is enough room between seats and rows that everyone can deplane within a minute and a half.

But in the chaos and terror of this emergency, can more than 150 passengers sandwiched into crowded rows actually safely evacuate in less time than it takes to brush your teeth?

In 2018, Congress directed the FAA to establish a minimum seat size and seat pitch for passenger safety. The FAA’s evacuation simulations found that “seat size and spacing did not adversely affect the success of emergency evacuations.” However, its simulations ignored something important: the reality of flying in America today.

The FAA tests included only able-bodied adults younger than age 60, ignoring the millions of Americans like me who live and fly with a disability or other mobility issues. Ignoring older folks, who may take a little longer to get down the aisle but who fly regularly. Ignoring young children and infants, who rely on Mom or Dad to get from point A to B. And ignoring anyone who might struggle to understand flight attendants’ instructions, including those who don’t speak English fluently.

According to CBS News, the tests didn’t even include common obstacles that could potentially slow down an evacuation, such as carry-on bags.

Test subjects were also reportedly in groups of 60, suggesting that many seats were left empty. In the real world, airplanes are packed -- especially now, during the bedlam of holiday travel season. A Boeing 737 Max 8, for example, typically seats between 162 to 178 passengers.

How likely does it seem to you that the next plane you get on won’t have any children or seniors on board? What are the odds that no one will have brought with them a backpack or purse? And what are the chances that this childless, carry-on-free flight will also have a whole bunch of empty seats? I’ve never been on a commercial flight like that, and I’d bet not many others have either. Yet that is what the FAA opted to test.

To his credit, then-FAA Administrator Steve Dickson conceded that these recent simulations provide “useful, but not necessarily definitive information regarding the effects of seat dimensions on safe evacuations for all populations.”

While the concession is appreciated, the point -- and the problem -- remains clear: The flying public deserves better.

That is why this month, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin and I introduced the Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabins (EVAC) Act. If passed, it would require the FAA to finally establish evacuation standards that consider not just seat size, pitch and configuration but also other real-life conditions such as the presence of carry-on bags and passengers of different heights, weights, ages and abilities. Already, this bill has been endorsed by everyone from the Allied Pilots Association and the AARP to the American Academy of Pediatrics, flight attendants and Capt. Chesley Sullenberger. Sullenberger, a retired pilot, knows a thing or two about evacuating commercial aircraft after he had to do so himself following a harrowing emergency water landing.

I know that this is a complicated business and that there are many well-intentioned, deeply intelligent people at the FAA and across the aviation industry who have dedicated an incredible amount of time and talent to this work. And going forward, we are going to need all of their expertise to get this right. But it is critically important that we do, in fact, get this right.

It should not, it cannot, take another tragedy to bring our aircraft evacuation standards up to date. Now is the time we must act to make flying as safe as we know it can be -- and as safe as Americans deserve.

Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth is a Democratic US senator from Illinois. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)