Last year Congress mandated that the FAA perform live tests to see whether current aircraft configurations can meet a 90 second evacuation standard. The agency was directed to “issue regulations to establish minimum dimensions for airplane seat width, length and pitch that are necessary for the safety of passengers.”
And so in November they are going to do emergency evacuation testing in Oklahoma City at the agency’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, using 720 volunteers over the course of 12 days, collecting 3000 pieces of data.
At a Congressional hearing last week, Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) who has wanted the government to regulate seat size even without this testing wanted to make sure the testing came out his way. He asked FAA Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell about the volunteers for testing, “Where are you going to get these people? You’re not going to go to Slim Fast, are you?”
This effort is the result of much lobbying by consumer groups who hope to see the government mandate greater seat width and legroom on airplanes. But mandating more of the space on each aircraft go to each passenger is a bad idea that will drive up prices and lead to less safety.
There’s little question that air travel is safe. There were zero deaths in commercial aviation in 2017. Commercial air safety has consistently improved for the past 35 years. And proponents of new rules can’t point to any incidents where those rule, prompted by aircraft densification, would have saved lives.
And the truth is that real world evacuation is always going to face challenges that testing won’t, whether it’s passengers grabbing bags from overhead bins or stopping to take selfies on the way out. That’s why a 90 second rule is useful in the first place, so that real world conditions, when they exceed 90 seconds, are still within safe parameters.
It’ll be interesting to see what develops but the upshot isn’t going to be that United, American, and Delta have to remove seats. If anything it would impact Spirit and Frontier, and that’ll mean less competition for the largest carriers and higher prices.
Moreover Spirit and Frontier have prices set so low they are the new “Southwest Effect” coined to describe the phenomenon of creating more air passengers, not just competing passengers away from other airlines. They make it possible for people to fly instead of drive, and even if 28 inch pitch seats miss the 90 second mark on evacuation, the need to evacuate is so rare (and most scenarios longer timeframes will be alright) that flying at 28 inch pitch will still be several orders of magnitude safer than driving.
If the FAA were to ban 28 inch pitch that’ll make transportation less safe, not more safe, once people on the cheapest Spirit fares return to the roads. That’s a phenomenon often referred to as “statistical murder.”