Consumer advocacy groups are expressing concern about
aircraft evacuation tests to be conducted by the FAA next month.
The tests, to be undertaken in Oklahoma City over the space
of 12 days, will help the FAA fulfill a congressional mandate to establish
minimum aircraft seat widths and minimum requirements for the space between
Under FAA rules, aircraft must be able to be evacuated in 90
seconds or less. But the agency has not updated its evacuation assessment
standards since 1990.
In an Oct. 21 letter to Department of Transportation
secretary Elaine Chao and FAA administrator Steven Dickson, 10 consumer
advocacy group called for the FAA to update those standards ahead of the tests.
The update should consider such as issues as the growing
size of Americans, higher load factors and the increase in the number of
carry-on bags brought onto planes by passengers, the groups said. The standards
should also account for disabled passengers and for the increase in the number
of animals being brought onto planes.
"As consumer and passenger rights advocates, we urge you to
respond to our concerns before conducting the November tests," the advocacy
groups wrote. "We hope you agree that it is essential that FAA tests not simply
rubber-stamp airlines' current and future safety-questionable seating
configurations for purposes of meeting the FAA’s 90-second evacuation
In emails with Travel Weekly, the FAA chose not provide
specifics of its testing plan in Oklahoma City. But various media reports say
the tests will be conducted with 60 participants at a time. FAA spokesman Paul
Takemoto said Tuesday that the testing simulator will be capable of testing
multiple seating configurations.
In recent congressional testimony, FAA officials said the
tests would be conducted in a dark environment and with half of the evacuation
doors incapacitated. Deputy FAA administrator Dan Elwell said that the tests
will include lap children and animals.
However, a report by ABC News last Friday said that the test
won’t account for animals, small children or disabled passengers.
The consumer groups chafed at the notion of conducting the
tests with only 60 participants.
"The use of a simulator configured in such a way, with only
a fraction of the passengers of a typical airplane, would constitute a fatal
flaw in the testing model," they said.
Takemoto said the FAA is reviewing the letter written by the
"The agency's evacuation standards are based on decades of
scientific studies," he wrote. "The advancements in cabin safety have
contributed to the increased survivability of every new generation of passenger
He added that the tests are just the first of several steps
the agency will take to deepen its knowledge of evacuation safety.
Through the years the FAA has implemented numerous
regulations designed to improve the likelihood of passengers surviving a plane
crash. In 1994, for example, the agency set minimum standards for the width of
the passageway from the aisle to exit doors, while rules to increase fire
suppression and reduce the flammability of aircraft insulation were put in
place in 1998 and 2000 respectively.
In June 2018, the DOT's Office of Inspector General began an
audit of the FAA's oversight of aircraft evacuations procedures. The audit is
expected to be finished this fall.
Last October, as part of the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill,
Congress gave the FAA a year to set minimum standards for seat width and the
space between rows. That deadline has already passed.
The consumer groups that signed the letter were the National
Consumers League, Business Travel Coalition, Consumer Action, Consumer
Federation of America, Consumer Reports, EdOnTravel.com, FlyersRights.org,
Travel Fairness Now, Travelers United and U.S. Public Interest Research Group