I’m back from vacation, and I hope you enjoyed the 72 Hour series on the Alaska Milk Run while I was gone. Now comes the hard part… to figure out what to cover considering all that happened since I went away. One thing that stood out to me was something that actually happened early in my vacation. This is a longshot, but a ruling by a federal appeals court could pave the way toward de facto legislation of seat sizes on aircraft. Those of you who support this shouldn’t get your hopes up, but it’s still something worth following. And with any luck, it will at least result in a review of aircraft evacuation testing protocols.
Airlines have been squeezing more seats on to aircraft for years now. This process of “densification” isn’t always bad, as I wrote before I left, but no matter what it means a lot more people get seated in the same size tube.
From time to time, random bills have popped up in Congress trying to prevent airlines from putting more seats onboard, but they were never going to go anywhere. They mostly focused on the comfort angle with a few taking weak attempts to rope in a health concern. The reality is that regulation based on comfort isn’t going to go anywhere, nor will health since, at least so far, there are no proven health impacts. But if a real safety concern can be proven, then there could be an opening for regulation.
You may have heard of Flyers Rights, a so-called passenger rights organization with which I disagree on nearly everything. Awhile back, Flyers Rights requested that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set minimum standards for seat sizes because the decrease in seating space and increase in passenger size meant it was an unsafe situation that could result in the inability of passengers to get off quickly in an emergency. It would also increase health risks to passengers in the way of deep vein thrombosis.
The FAA blew this off completely.
The organization sued, and now a federal appeals court has ruled partially in favor of Flyers Rights.
Let’s get this out of the way first. The court agreed with the FAA that there was enough documentation showing that deep vein thrombosis and other health concerns weren’t an issue. But on the evacuation test side, the court has pushed this back to the FAA to review again.
Evacuation rules set by the FAA under 14 CFR 25.803 require that for all aircraft with more than 44 seats onboard, everyone must be able to get off the airplane within 90 seconds. The rules are very detailed in one sense, requiring at least 40 percent of passengers to be female, forcing 3 life size dolls to be carried to simulate infants, and even regulating how much light can be on the outside. (You can read the details here.) But it doesn’t say anything about passenger or seat sizes.
Usually evacuation tests just look at the total number of seats onboard. That may sound fine, but consider this. If Airline A has 200 seats on an airplane spread evenly throughout the cabin, that’s one thing. But if Airline B has 50 flat beds up front with a ton of room and then 150 seats in the back crammed in with no legroom, the seat counts are the same but the ability to evacuate may be different. Or to use a real life example of the original American 737 MAX 8 configuration compared to that of Southwest:
The FAA, for its part, claims that seat dimensions don’t have an impact on evacuation times. As the court says, “that makes no sense.” The court really didn’t mince words on this one. For example:
The Administration’s rationale also blinks reality. As a matter of basic physics, at some point seat and passenger dimensions would become so squeezed as to impede the ability of passengers to extricate themselves from their seats and get over to an aisle.
The FAA says it has done tests with as little as 28 or 29 inches of pitch, but none of those tests show up “in the record” so there is no proof at all available for the court to review. The FAA also says nothing about whether people being larger has been taken into account with testing.
Looking at all of this, the court came to a conclusion. It freely admits that there may be no need to regulate seat sizes, but the FAA has to provide some proof of that. It hasn’t done so, and so the court is now pushing this back on to the FAA to actually properly respond to the original petition.
What does this mean in practice? Well, if the FAA truly has test results looking at really tight seat pitch, passenger sizes, etc, then it has to produce the evidence. This would then be a dead end for Flyers Rights. If not, however, it may end up having to review these issues in greater detail. And a review wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Forgetting about the seat spacing issues, there are some other things about current evacuation tests that are concerning. For example:
- Crewmembers can’t be used as passengers in a test, but employees who would have greater familiarity with evacuation than most can be used.
- People aren’t required to be able to evacuate with their personal belongings. Of course, people should never bring their personal belongings when their lives are in danger, but if you’ve seen video of any evacuation, you know that people are stupid.
- Testing also doesn’t happen all that often. When aircraft are derivatives of previous airplanes, often computer simulation combined with previous tests can be substituted for actual tests.
We’re a long way from this actually turning into any kind of rulemaking, but I do hope that shining a spotlight on evacuation rules may result in updating the tests to be a better fit for our time. This ruling won’t necessarily change anything since the FAA likely can just provide more proof in its response and make this go away. But with any luck it could be the spark that makes the FAA revisit evacuation testing criteria.