Proposed legislation would require the FAA to diversify airplane evacuation tests

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., introduced a bill Thursday that would compel the Federal Aviation Administration to update its standards for airplane evacuation testing.

The Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin (EVAC) Act would require the FAA to incorporate carry-on bags and simulate a wider variety of passenger ages and ability levels in future tests.

"The recent FAA evacuation tests have not included real-life conditions," Duckworth told USA TODAY. "I'm trying to impose real-world parameters with these tests."

The FAA last conducted live evacuation testing in 2019 and 2020 in response to a mandate from Congress to consider instituting minimum seat dimensions for air carriers. Those tests were criticized for using only able-bodied test subjects ages 18 to 60.

Duckworth's proposed legislation is meant to address that.

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What is the EVAC Act? 

Federal regulations require airplanes to be capable of being fully evacuated in 90 seconds or less using only half of the available exits. Duckworth and others have said that that regulation is easier to meet under laboratory conditions that don't take into account real-world scenarios like disabled passengers or travelers who don't speak English.

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"Evacuation standards need to do a better job of taking real-life conditions into account to ensure all types of passengers can safely evacuate in an emergency," a statement from Duckworth's office said.

The legislation would require future FAA evacuation tests to consider the following variables:

  • Passengers of different ages, including children and senior citizens.

  • Passengers of different heights and weights.

  • Passengers with disabilities.

  • Passengers who do not speak English.

  • Passengers who cannot speak, are nonvocal or nonverbal.

  • Presence of carry-on luggage and personal items like purses, backpacks and briefcases.

  • Seat size and pitch.

  • Seat configuration, location and other obstacles in pathway to exits.

Duckworth told USA TODAY she expects the bill to be folded into the FAA reauthorization legislation expected to come before Congress in 2023.

Plane arriving at Salt Lake City International Airport.
Plane arriving at Salt Lake City International Airport.

Why doesn't the FAA already include more diverse test subjects?

The FAA previously told USA TODAY that it is aware that its evacuation tests do not include a representative cross-section of the traveling public, but it said that research ethics standards prohibit older, younger or disabled people from participating in a simulation during which they could be injured.

Duckworth, however, said there are ethical ways to represent those who can't participate.

"Why don't you look to all of the other emergency management agencies that do simulate this?" she said. "Firefighting forces do this all the time with able-bodied firefighters simulating someone who is injured or has a disability. ... You could have a crash test dummy simulating a paraplegic."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sen. Duckworth's EVAC Act aims to update FAA airplane evacuation tests