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First-of-their-kind tests are aimed at setting new standards for airplane seats

U.S. military family members get settled in their airplane seats as they wait to take off from Yokota Air Base, Japan.

GRANT OKUBO/STARS AND STRIPES

By LORI ARATANI | The Washington Post | Published: November 29, 2019

At a special center in Oklahoma City, Okla., 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.

Seat width on many of the major airlines has shrunk from about 18.5 inches to 17 inches. And seat pitch — the distance from one point in a seat to the same point in a seat in front or behind it — has decreased from an average of 35 inches to 31 inches. On some airlines, the distance is now 28 inches.

At the same time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American man is about 30 pounds heavier — 198 pounds — than he was in the 1960s. The average American woman, who now weighs 170, is nearly 30 pounds heavier than she was in the 1960s. Nearly 93 million Americans, roughly 40% of the population, are obese, and that number is projected to reach 50% by 2030.

Breyault said limiting the test groups to 60 people also doesn't reflect the reality of air travel today. Statistics show that planes are carrying more passengers than a decade ago. Add to that other variables: Because of baggage fees, people are bringing more bags on board. More animals — whether service dogs or comfort animals — are also flying.

"The bottom line from our point of view is that the FAA seems determined to find any way around meaningful rulemakings that would improve evacuation safety," Breyault said.

The National Consumers League was one of 10 consumer groups that wrote to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, raising concerns about the drills.

The FAA has long resisted calls to set minimum standards for seat size and pitch.

In 2016, the Flyers Rights Education Fund petitioned a federal appeals court to impose a moratorium that would stop airlines from reducing the size of seats. Judge Patricia Millett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied the request, but instructed the FAA to explain why smaller seats were not a safety hazard. The FAA said it is up to the airlines to determine the appropriate seat size, noting that the issue is one of comfort, not safety.

Lawmakers, however, refused to take no for an answer, which is why FAA researchers are conducting tests in Oklahoma City.

At the request of Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., chairman of the aviation subcommittee, the Department of Transportation's inspector general launched an audit into the FAA's evacuation procedures, which will include an examination of whether changes in seating configuration might impact passengers' ability to evacuate a plane in an emergency. The inspector general's report is expected next year.

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