Airplane seat squeeze sparks debate over safety concerns in evacuation

Frustration over the shrinking size of airplane seats has sparked debate over whether it's a safety threat when passengers need to evacuate a plane.

After years of airlines squeezing more people onto planes with less legroom and narrower seats, some are concerned that during an emergency evacuation, passengers may have trouble getting out of their seats and making their way to the aisle in time.

The Federal Aviation Administration says the current state of airline seating doesn't prevent people from evacuating in time. But some in Congress are pushing to regulate aircraft seat size.

"The incredible shrinking airline seat is more than an inconvenience, it can pose a serious threat to the health and safety of passengers," said U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and Edward Markey, D-Mass. in a written statement. Legislation pending in Congress for FAA reauthorization includes a measure on the seat size issue, but it's yet to be seen whether it will be in the final version.

The Federal Aviation Administration has already denied a petition by a travelers' rights group seeking a rule establishing minimum seat size, and said last month it has "no evidence that there is an immediate safety issue" or that current seat dimensions hamper the speed of passenger evacuations.

In an emergency, a plane is supposed to be fully evacuated in 90 seconds.

According to the FAA, it takes more time for emergency exits to begin working and for the line of passengers to clear than for people to get out of their seats, “even if those seats are relatively narrow and close together.”

“During an evacuation, passengers stand up in just a few seconds,” the FAA said in a written statement., which filed the petition, responded that video clips of evacuation tests “only show younger physically fit test subjects in exercise clothing stepping into the aisles,” according to a written statement from president Paul Hudson.

The FAA acknowledged that it doesn’t use elderly passengers or children during its evacuation tests, since they are more likely to be injured.

Although the agency denied the petition to set rules on seat size, a different government study on seat size and safety has been launched.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. and Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the ranking members of the House transportation committee and subcommittee on aviation, asked the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General to examine whether passengers can safely evacuate in 90 seconds given changes in the airline industry and consumer behavior.

The inspector general’s office in a June memo announcing the audit that standards have not been significantly updated since 1990 and since then, the distance between seat rows has decreased and passengers are bringing on more carry-on luggage.

“What needs to be considered is today’s reality. Passengers are bigger… The seats are smaller and closer together,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union.

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Bill Waldock, professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University specializing in aircraft accident investigation, said as passengers “get larger in every dimension, it makes it even more critical to have enough space, particularly the legroom to be able to maneuver to get out of the seat,” Waldock said.

He said the increase in carry-on bags — and some passengers’ insistence on trying to take their bags with them when evacuating during an emergency — could turn bags into obstacles for others if passengers abandon the bags in the aisle mid-evacuation.

And during a crash iPads and other tablets, used today by passengers throughout a flight including takeoff and landing, could become flying projectiles and injure people, Nelson said. “How is that going to affect others crawling around them and trying to get out?” she asked.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines said the comfort of its customers “is a top priority” and is “committed to a standard seat pitch of 31 inches. Seat pitch measures the distance between a seat and the same point on the seat in front of it.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier in Atlanta, said its seat pitch is 31 inches to 32 inches and said it has “no current plans to reduce that offering.” It said newer seats have a raised seatback pocket to allow more legroom.

Industry group Airlines for America pushed back against the idea of new regulation. “We believe market forces should ultimately determine whether the industry is meeting customers’ expectations, rather than government regulation.”

But the group also cited the FAA’s decision and said it supports “the federal government’s role in determining what seat size is safe.”

For airlines, “if you narrow seat pitch a couple of inches in an airplane… you can get an extra row of seats in there, which means more revenue,” Waldock said. “That’s what you’re computing, the economics of it versus the safety of it.”

He thinks it may take an aircraft evacuation incident to prompt action.

“That demonstrates there’s a problem,” Waldock said. “It’s a hard way to do it.”

Nelson, with the flight attendants union, said the seat squeeze also affects passengers in other ways besides an emergency.

“Anecdotally, this leads to air rage incidents,” Nelson said. “We find that people have shorter fuses, are more just generally agitated when the space around them is much smaller, when people are closer to them…. When people are squeezed, literally tensions rise and we have to manage those tensions and de-escalate.”

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