FAA aims to reset standards for planes’ seats, but tests are disputedNovember 29, 2019
At a special center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, researchers from the Federal Aviation Administration are running a series of drills that could affect the comfort and safety of millions of airplane passengers.
More than 700 residents have been recruited to help determine whether the space between airplane seats or the size of the seats affects their ability to evacuate an aircraft.
The drills mark the first time the FAA is examining whether the trend toward smaller seats and less personal space on today’s planes poses safety risks to those aboard in the event of an emergency.
But consumer advocates and lawmakers are worried that the results of the tests are flawed, because the people the agency recruited don’t reflect the demographics of today’s flying public.
The FAA said the pool of volunteers includes adults between 18 and 60. Lawmakers and consumer advocates note that there are no children or travelers with disabilities. The pool also does not include animals, which are a growing presence in today’s cabins, said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.
“You’ve got to have a representative sample,” Cohen said. “This is supposed to be a scientific study, but it’s flawed from the get-go.”
An FAA spokesman declined to address concerns about the demographics of the test pool.
The issue is of keen interest for Cohen, a frequent traveler. He, along with Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., co-wrote the provision in the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill that required the agency conduct these exercises as part of the push to set minimum standards for seat size and pitch.
There are no federal rules regarding seat size. Manufacturers, however, must demonstrate that there is enough space to allow passengers to evacuate the aircraft in 90 seconds or less.
“The testing is a research project, following standard scientific methods and principles, which requires that we minimize the number of variables to allow proper interpretation of the results,” FAA spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt said. “Inclusion of variables other than the ones critical to the topic of investigation could obscure the effect of study parameters.”
As part of the study, 60 volunteers will be seated in mock airplane cabins that simulate the layout of a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320, two common single-aisle aircraft. They’ll be instructed by flight attendants to evacuate. The seats will then be reconfigured and the tests will be run again. Each group of 60 will do the test four times. The study is being conducted by the FAA’s Cabin Safety Research Team over 12 days in November. The goal is to release the results of the study by next summer, Breitenfeldt said.
John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, said the FAA can’t ignore the fact that space on airplanes is shrinking at the same time the average American is getting bigger. The shift doesn’t just affect comfort, he argues – it also could affect safety.