Airlines

'Americans are getting bigger.' FAA to test whether passengers can safely evacuate cramped airplane cabins

Key Points
  • The FAA is planning to test aircraft evacuations with live volunteers in November.
  • The agency is required to establish minimum seat dimensions, if it deems it necessary.
  • Some airlines are eschewing seat-pitch as a metric of passenger space.
An evacuation slide for the A380 Airbus is tested at UTC Aerospace Systems in Phoenix, Arizona, July 11, 2014.
Nancy Wiechec | Reuters

The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to test later this year whether American passengers can safely evacuate airplanes in an emergency after airlines spent decades adding smaller seats — and more of them — to their planes.

A funding bill passed last year gave the FAA the authority to establish minimum airplane seat dimensions. The FAA said it need to conduct tests to determine if current seats and configurations warrant any changes. Meanwhile, lawmakers have fretted whether they're too small for average American travelers, who are getting heavier.

"Americans are getting bigger so seat size is important but it's got to be looked at in the context of safety," Deputy FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell said at a House panel hearing last week.

The average American man has gained almost 10 pounds since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, weighing in at 197.8 pounds in 2016. The average weight of U.S. women has also increased by nearly 7 pounds over that period to 170.5 pounds in 2016, the CDC said.

The FAA's tests, which will be conducted over 12 days at its Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City, will include 720 volunteers who will be asked to evacuate an aircraft cabin simulator under stressful conditions: lights off and with some of the exits blocked. It will also account for travelers flying with small children on their laps, animals and passengers with disabilities.

Lawmakers at at a House hearing on the FAA's implementation of last year's bill worried that the smaller seats could be a safety hazard, especially as Americans become heavier.

"Beside whether I cram my backside into the seat getting out would be a really useful thing," said Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Michigan Republican.

Elwell told lawmakers that the last aircraft evacuation test regulators conducted with people was in Europe with a variant of the Airbus A350 plane last year.

But Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., insisted that tests should occur with Americans — not just Europeans — and that passengers with disabilities should also be included.

"We're widening out more than the Europeans," he said, adding: "It would be good to invite me because I have a bad leg."

Crews must be able to evacuate passengers from aircraft within 90 seconds.

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Airline seats and passengers get the squeeze

The Department of Transportation's watchdog last year began an audit into federal oversight of cabin evacuations, because the standards haven't been significantly updated since 1990, even though passenger behaviors and cabin configurations have changed. The audit is still ongoing.

Among the challenges facing crews to evacuate aircraft is ensuring passengers don't stop to grab their carry-on luggage, which many travelers have to avoid checked-bag fees.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants labor union that represents some 50,000 flight attendants at United, Spirit and others, says cabin crews are challenged because many airlines have cut staffing to FAA minimum requirements.

"Flight attendants are left to manage the frustrations of passengers jammed into ever-shrinking space," she said in written testimony to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's aviation subcommittee last week. "This is not an issue the market will fix. Safety needs to provide a bottom line."

The National Transportation Safety Board said in its report on a Miami-bound American Airlines flight in 2016 that caught fire that "some passengers evacuated all three usable exists with carry-on baggage," going against flight attendant instructions.

More seats but how much space?

Various airlines, including American and JetBlue have added more seats to their aircraft, an effort to cut down on costs and increase profits. Meanwhile, discount airlines that offer seat pitch, a proxy for leg room, as low as 28 inches like on Spirit have become more popular.

Airlines, however, are also opting for thinner and sometimes curved seats, which they argue offer passengers more room. They are also eschewing the term pitch, the measure of one point on in a seat to a seat in front of them, because they say it doesn't capture the space travelers have.

At an aircraft trade show in Los Angeles last month, Spirit unveiled new seats made by British firm Acro Aircraft Seating with a curved back in the seat.

seats on JetBlue's new Airbus A321neo plane offer a curved back and don't include in-seat remote controls to save space.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC

"From wrapping the seat back around you, you save this wasted space around you," said Acro's vice president senior vice president for sales Alan McInnes. Spirit's new seat also moved the literature pocket higher on the back of the seat. "We are understanding lots more about the ergonomics of it."

JetBlue showed off seats on its new Airbus A321neo last week that also have a curved back. The airline also decided to forgo controls for its in-flight entertainment screens in the arm rests and designed a program to allow passengers to use their mobile phones as a remote control to save space and weight.