DOT inspector general to scrutinize aircraft evacuation procedures


The Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has begun an audit into the FAA's oversight of aircraft evacuation procedures.

As part of the audit, the OIG will look at whether the denser configurations of seats that carriers have installed on aircraft over the past decade are affecting evacuation times. 

The audit comes at the request of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who is the ranking member of the House transportation committee, as well as Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House aviation subcommittee.

Under FAA rules, aircraft must be able to be evacuated in 90 seconds or less. The OIG said those standards have not been significantly updated since 1990.

"Significant changes in the industry and consumer behavior have occurred since 1990," the OIG wrote in a press release. "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."

The OIG report began 10 and a half months after a federal appeals court ordered the FAA to review seat sizes and the distance between rows on commercial aircraft.

The FAA asserts that the interior configurations currently used by airlines have passed the required safety and certification tests. But the court objected to the FAA practice of not releasing those tests in order to protect the proprietary information of manufacturers.

The FAA did not immediately respond to an inquiry late Wednesday afternoon about whether it had taken any action pursuant to that July 2017 court ruling. 

Pressure on regulatory agencies to begin governing aircraft interior configurations could also be coming from Congress. The House version of this year's FAA reauthorization bill, which passed out of the chamber in April, would direct the FAA to set minimum standards for seat pitch and width within a year. The Senate has not yet passed a companion FAA reauthorization bill. 

The OIG said it would assess the FAA's development and updating of aircraft emergency evacuation standards, as well as its process for determining whether aircraft, as currently configured, meet evacuation standards.


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