The Back Door Way to Regulate Against Adding More Seats on Airplanes

Government Regulation, Seats

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.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

33 comments on “The Back Door Way to Regulate Against Adding More Seats on Airplanes

  1. Do the current evacuation test rules say anything about pax in wheelchairs or with limited mobility?

    If you’re in a window seat, and the 2 pax between you and the aisle were both brought into the plane in wheelchairs, good luck getting out of the plane in < 90 seconds…

    I'd love to see some "worst case" evacuation drills done. Pick a super dense plane configuration, stuff it full of a mix of mobility-impaired people, kids, and fat people (in other words, a similar to a mix of people on flights to "God's waiting room", aka Florida, but with more fat people), offer $100 cash to every pax that can get out of the plane in < 90 seconds (to simulate the panic, pushing, and shoving that happen in real evacuations) and THEN see how long it takes to evacuate the plane.

    1. I don’t think we need to actually perform that test to know what would happen….it’s called the Jerry Springer show.

      1. Thanks for the link. Other than don’t use airline employees, don’t rehearse, and the requirements for the proportion of pax that are > 50, female, and female and > 50, those rules are awfully vague and really do represent an abnormally optimistic “best case” situation.

  2. If the industry is regulated to ensure X amount of room per seat, then naturally some seats will have to come off of planes…this will increase fares, and people not being willing to pay for a little more room is the entire reason we’re in this mess with cramped planes in the first place…if people were willing to pay more Spirit would have been bankrupt years ago.

  3. A real test to check for 90 second Evan is to board a normal flight on a high capacity aircraft pull away from the gate, stop the aircraft somewhere, set off some fake canisters of smoke and start screaming evacuate evacuate and see what happens.

    Average passengers who don’t know what’s about to happen are going to react differently than an aircraft full of employees knowing they’re there to test evacuation.

    1. I agree with Kilroy and David SF eastbay. Use real people in real situations. I can almost guarantee you that 90 seconds will not be met. I will not go into any detail but my company had an office in the South Tower. While everyone in that office made it to safety they saw people in wheelchairs and ones using canes waiting by the elevators who were told to wait for the firemen. You need real testing with real non-airline people.

      P.S. Crank, can’t you use an aircraft during one of your Dorkfests and test the people attending?

      1. I’m pushing 300 lbs, so I’ll just say this… In any evacuation (of a plane, bus, building, you name it), you better hope you can get in front of fat people like me, because if you get stuck behind us, you’re in trouble.

        It’s not a very politically correct or polite thing to say, nor is it a fun thing to think about, but obese people who get winded after 1 flight of stairs (picking on myself here) may well move too slowly, jam up the stairwells and doors, and kill a lot of people behind them as a result.

      2. AFAIK, the NTSB reports often (always?) list the amount of time from the beginning of an evacuation to the end of an evacuation. It usually is 90 seconds or less.

    2. That’s actually a pretty good idea, but I’m sure that the negative publicity from flight delays and injuries (from what I recall reading in the past, the typical airplane evacuation drill results in a dozen or more friction burns on the slides, and often a broken limb or two) would prevent airlines from doing it.

      Another option would be to find a way to use real-life emergency evacuations during relatively innocuous emergencies and time them; e,g., figure out how long it took everyone to get off the plane after the plane popped a tire and overran the runway on landing. If there were a few cameras on the inside of the plane and not too much smoke this probably wouldn’t be that hard of a thing to do.

    3. As a former Pan Am purser who has participated in both test and actual emergency evacuations, I agree completely with Kilroy and David SF Eastbay. Test evacuations are different from an actual emergency evacuation in almost every critical way. To even approach validity in results, test evacuations must simulate actual emergency evacuations in every possible way. For example, although it may not be feasible to subject passengers on a regular flight to a test evacuation, it should feasible to conduct a test evacuation using non-employee volunteers for a flight who do not realize that they will be participating in a test evacuation.

      1. > For example, although it may not be feasible to subject passengers on a regular flight to a test evacuation, it should feasible to conduct a test evacuation using non-employee volunteers for a flight who do not realize that they will be participating in a test evacuation.

        Great idea, and great point.

        A marketing firm could recruit potential customers for the airline (or hire some temps, even) using the excuse of having the customers test how comfortable the seats are, etc etc- pitch it as the airline trying to get customer feedback, and just slip a required waiver of liability in there. Then tell the customers to get comfortable, read or use their phones on airplane mode, etc etc, as if they were in the cruise portion of flight (heck, even have the FAs come around with drink service, and serve free booze to ensure you have a few slightly tipsy pax for added realism), wait 30 or 45 minutes, and set off the smoke canisters and evacuate the plane.

        It would be a little deceitful, but offer pax a free RT flight in the US for a few hours of their time and I doubt many would care about the surprise evacuation drill

  4. A slight advantage that the ULCC high-density configurations have is that the seats don’t recline. It’s reasonable to imagine that in a real-life sudden emergency situation, the flight attendants wouldn’t have time to ensure that all passengers have their seat backs in the upright position.

    1. Regulations state they should be up for take off and landing. In a mid flight emergency, plenty of time to ensure that they are before landing (and if not, won’t matter as no one will have survived the crash !).

  5. Years ago I worked for an airline – the week of emergency training was the most interesting; and the thing that I still remember is that evacuation drills are done with all exits being available & the plane level on all it’s wheels…. the reality, in an emergency, this is not going to be the case – one side will be higher or lower, or the front or back will be on the ground & the other end up higher in the air. I may not watch the safety demo – but I AWAYS review the safety card to see how to open the doors/window exits and I also count the # of rows behind me to an exit.

    1. The Airbus A380 evacuation test had half of the exits blocked (the standard). Everyone got out in 90 seconds, and the most significant injury was a broken leg. (Yeah the plane was level on its wheels though…

  6. For starters, having Congress set rules will drive us all crazy. Then, can anyone–airline or passenger–ever agree as to what is unsafe? Who’s to say a 15″ seat pitch shouldn’t be allowed, or that the cabin must have an aisle? Perhaps you’re too fat to fly, or if you can’t crawl over each row of seats to get to where you want to sit, or can’t quickly crawl to an exit in an emergency, you’re not fit enough to fly and you should be denied boarding!

    The problem is that the airlines have been able to control competition, to the point that “price” is everything. Product competition is something that sounds nice, but is meaningless in today’s airline industry. Is there really any difference between Spirit and United anymore?

    As flights get fuller and fuller, the 15″ seat pitch is coming, and you’re going to be miseable on every flight, even in premium class. Where there is no real product competition anymore, airline travel is becoming “take it, or leave it.” “Resistance is futile.” It would be nice to fly a NetJet everywhere, but…!

    1. But the 3 remaining legacy carriers all had, and still have more leg room than Spirit, People didn’t want to pay for it. I think you’ve got your causation backwards. People shopped mainly on price, not service, not seats, not frequent flyer programs, barely even schedule. Spirit wouldn’t have had double digit grown for years if that wasn’t the case. So the legacy’s lowered their prices and crammed more seats in. It seems far too many people want to pay Spirit prices, but show up to the airport expecting 1960’s PanAm service.

  7. Do people who disembark during an emergency carrying personal effects receive a fine? Increased risk to life due to disabled or overweight people is unfortunate but people dying because of rule-breakers valuing their possessions over the safety of others is completely unacceptable. I would like to see press coverage of rule-breakers being fined or otherwise penalized.

  8. Welcome back, Brett. I’ve always wondered about the effect of the safety instruction prior to takeoff, especially when we’re told floor lighting in an emergency will light the way to the exits. I think it should be standard practice to illustrate that floor lighting at that time as an example so every one of us will know what to look for in an emergency. I wonder if that special emergency floor lighting really does work?

    Your blog is always fun to follow – well written. Many thanks.

    Patrick Dee

    1. Thanks Patrick. It would be great if they could make it as real as possible. If that meant darkening the cabin and showing floor lighting, that could make it much easier for people in the real situation.

  9. To be honest, I do not see this as a “backdoor”. Security is the only thing, the FAA (and other regulators) should care about. Everything else (comfort, board/deplane faster, overhead bin space etc.) can be leveraged by money, your odds of survival should not depend on the money you’re able/willing to spend. Bad enough it does depend on it at the moment.

  10. Crankster, your comparison of Southwest’s evenly distributed cabin and American’s dense pack approach to coach is a fascinating point. I see no reasonable way in which 150 or more people can evacuate a 737-MAX in 90 seconds or less. Human Factors alone says that is virtually impossible.

    First class and even Economy Plus will have an incredible safety advantage. We’ll get out and like the Titanic of a century ago, the third class passengers will go down with the ship. Congress really does need to act on this one. Sorry, but the FAA aint up front on this one.

    1. The only caveat is that the safest part of an aircraft is the back. So if you have a true hull loss incident your best bet is in cattle class.

      I will say there is a reason I prefer aisle seating beyond not getting smashed up against a wall for the entire flight. I’m also hyper aware of where the exits are.

      1. Statistically, OK. But if there are 150 people jammed into a space designed for 120, the surge to the exits, particularly amid toxic fumes and smoke, will be huge. There have been more than a few crashes where the passengers survived the initial accident only to die because they could not evacuate the aircraft in a timely fashion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier