FAA to test whether packed planes af­fect evacuation time

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By David Koenig

OKLAHOMA CITY — The size of your seat and how much legroom you’ll get on a fu­ture flight could be de­cided by 720 Ok­la­homans tak­ing part in a first-of-its-kind test to de­ter­mine if packed planes slow emer­gency evac­u­a­tions.

Fre­quent fly­ers on U.S. air­lines are all too aware that cramped econ­omy cab­ins are detri­men­tal to com­fort. But fed­eral of­fi­cials who write air­line safety rules have never tested whether smaller seats or tightly packed rows have any ef­fect on evacuation time.

“It is a big pet peeve of fly­ers, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that there is a safety is­sue,” said Stacey Zinke-McKee, a med­i­cal re­search of­fi­cial at the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion fa­cil­ity in Oklahoma City where the tests are be­ing con­ducted.

Be­gin­ning next month, FAA re­searchers will re­cruit peo­ple from churches, uni­ver­si­ties and on­line to come up with a test group sim­i­lar to the over­all U.S. pop­u­la­tion. Sixty at a time, they will be seated in a sim­u­la­tor laid out like a Boe­ing 737 or an Air­bus A320, planes com­monly used on do­mes­tic flights.

Flight at­ten­dants will tell them to get out of the sim­u­la­tor — money will be paid to the first ones off to mimic the sense of panic that oc­curs in an emer­gency. Then the seats and rows will be re­con­fig­ured, and they will run the tests again — four times with each group of 60 vol­un­teers.

The re­searchers will com­pare tests to see if smaller seats or tighter rows make any dif­fer­ence. A dra­matic dif­fer­ence would pre­sum­ably be rea­son for FAA to set more gen­er­ous min­i­mum stan­dards for the air­lines to fol­low. An FAA panel will use that data to help set seat­ing stan­dards for air­lines, with a de­ci­sion pos­si­ble by late next year.

The aver­age Amer­i­can adult is about 10 pounds heav­ier than two decades ago, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures, and air­lines are squeez­ing more pas­sen­gers into the econ­omy cabin to make more room for high-pay­ing cus­tomers in busi­ness class.

Congress last year or­dered the FAA to set min­i­mums for seat sizes and the dis­tance be­tween rows.

Air­lines “are cram­ming in more and more and more seats, closer and closer to­gether. Peo­ple are get­ting big­ger,” House Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee Chair­man Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., told the FAA’s deputy ad­min­is­tra­tor at a hear­ing last month.

The dis­tance from any point on a seat — say, the front of the arm­rest — and the same spot on the seat in the next row is called pitch, and pitch has been shrink­ing. A few years ago, the stan­dard was around 34 inches. To­day in the econ­omy cabin of U.S. air­lines it is more of­ten around 30 or 31 inches, and even tighter on some, in­clud­ing Spirit Air­lines.

Planes are also more crowded. The aver­age flight now is about 85% full, and dur­ing peak hours ev­ery seat is taken.

Con­sider also that more pas­sen­gers carry bags on board, and hun­dreds of thou­sands of them bring an emo­tional-sup­port an­i­mal, too, and it stands to rea­son that it will take longer to get every­body out dur­ing an emer­gency.

Un­til last year, the FAA re­sisted calls to set min­i­mum seat and row stan­dards, say­ing those are mat­ters of pas­sen­ger com­fort, not safety, and it’s a safety reg­u­la­tor.

SUE OGROCKI/AP

The FAA’s David Rup­pel gives in­struc­tions to mem­bers of the me­dia be­fore a sim­u­la­tion of a plane’s cabin fill­ing with smoke Thurs­day at a re­search fa­cil­ity in Oklahoma City.

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