Emergency airplane evacuation study initiated by DOT Inspector General

DOT IG launches emergency airplane evacuation study.

emergency airplane evacuationThe DOT inspector general (IG) has begun an audit of emergency airplane evacuation. After hearings before the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection (ACACP), scores of articles in the press, testimony before congressional committees, lawsuits demanding to see evacuation test results, visits with the DOT IG’s office, letters to the Secretary of Transportation, and national editorials, the FAA and DOT are being investigated for compliance with their own airplane evacuation rules.

Can current aircraft configurations with more seats, less legroom, narrower aisles, and larger passengers still meet the 90-second standard deplaning passengers in an emergency? This is the question that has been asked repeatedly by consumer advocates for the past two years since the ACACP hearings shifted the discussion of less personal space from one of passenger comfort and customer service to a probem of safety and health. Travelers United visited with the DOT IG and discussed this issue earlier this year. However, the office informed us that no action could be taken without a congressional request.

Yesterday, the DOT IG anounced that they would begin a study of current emergency airplane evacuations. Here is the inspector general:

The effective evacuation of civil aircraft is a critical component of saving lives in the event of an aviation incident. The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) standards for evacuating passenger aircraft require that the aircraft can be fully evacuated in 90 seconds or less. To obtain FAA certification for a specific aircraft type, manufacturers must conduct actual demonstrations of emergency evacuations or a combination of tests and analyses, including computer simulations, that yield equivalent results. Stakeholders have raised concerns about the validity of the assumptions that drive FAA’s evacuation standards—and industry tests and simulations for certifying new aircraft—given that the standards have not been significantly updated since 1990. Significant changes in the industry and consumer behavior have occurred since 1990. For example, the number of aircraft seats and passengers have increased, but seat size and distance between seats—known as seat pitch—has decreased. Passengers’ reliance on carry-on luggage has also increased.

House Democrats call for study

Click here to subscribeRep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the two top Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, finally requested the study. This is the first break in congressional sentiment about passenger safety in years. Travelers United applauds their action.

At a meeting of the ACACP on September 1, 2015, the FAA representative said that to her knowledge no emergency airplane evacuations had been tested with seat pitch less than 31 inches. Plus, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study determined that in an American Airlines did not meet the current 90-second rule for emergency airplane evacuation. That study has been included in court documents filed by consumer groups with the Federal Appeals Courts last month and Travelers United reported on the issue as well.

According to documents released under a Freedom of Information request, “the last time the FAA did a full-scale emergency evacuation test of commonly-used models of planes was over 20 years ago. Since that time, there have been numerous airworthiness certifications of new aircraft.” It was only with good luck that the crippled plane didn’t become a death trap.

DOT IG emergency airplane evacuation study will include passenger behavior and seating capacity

The DOT IG announcement of the study about emergengy airplane evacuation concludes:

Accordingly, our audit objectives will be to assess FAA’s (1) development and updating of  aircraft emergency evacuation standards—including how changes in passenger behavior, passenger demographics, and seating capacity—affect the standards and (2) process for determining whether aircraft as currently configured meet evacuation standards.

This DOT IG emergency airplane evacuation examination, together with the pending legal actions to get the FAA to release its testing data, should begin to tell the story about whether the continuous shrinking of the airline seats, together with the physical expansion of the American public, has affected the ability to maintain the 90-second rule for emergency airplane evacuations.