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Bid to reform aircraft evacuation standards resurfaced in Congress

Lawmakers want to correct the absence of regulatory consideration for passengers who would need additional time or assistance getting off a plane in the event of an emergency.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Federal Aviation Administration faced renewed pressure this week to evaluate its guidelines for how fast airline passengers should be able to evacuate during an emergency.

While FAA regulations for an emergency hold that the cabin of a passenger aircraft should be evacuated within 90 seconds, Representative Steve Cohen considers this standard unrealistic. The Tennessee Democrat has long pushed for reforms in airline seating and safety standards and sponsored a bill Wednesday called the EVAC Act, short for Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin.

In a statement, the lawmaker said the bill aims to address insufficient evacuation guidelines set by the government’s airline regulator.

“I have long held doubts that the FAA’s 90-second evacuation standard can be met in most instances,” Cohen said. “The EVAC Act will ensure the FAA’s emergency evacuation standards address the needs of all members of the flying public, including those with disabilities.”

Under the proposed bill, the FAA would need to factor in passengers of varying age and ability who might need extra time to disembark a plane during an emergency. The agency would also have to plan for passengers that do not speak English or have carry-on luggage — and would even need to consider seating size and layout as potential obstacles to a hasty exit.

Cohen has already passed legislation aimed at improving airline safety. In 2018, the lawmaker introduced a measure that required the FAA to determine a minimum size for airline seats that would ensure passengers could abide by the 90-second evacuation standard. Some language from Cohen’s bill made it into the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act.

The Tennessee Democrat brought forward the first version of the EVAC Act late last year.

A Senate-side version of the bill was also reintroduced this week by Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth and Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, both Democrats. Duckworth said that the legislation would proactively protect airline safety as the number of passengers on commercial flights continues to grow.

“Every American should be able to fly with dignity and peace of mind knowing that safety protocols are in place that take every passenger into account,” Senator Baldwin said.

A spokesperson for the FAA said Thursday that the agency does not comment on pending legislation and declined to directly comment on whether it stood by the 90-second standard.

In the meantime, the spokesperson noted, the agency is “reviewing the thousands of comments it received on whether current seat size and spacing affect passenger evacuation” as part of the review mandated by the 2018 FAA authorization bill.

The spokesperson described a study the regulator conducted that examined around 300 evacuations over the last decade and accounted for passenger demographics. It found overall safety in emergency evacuations to be high.

Dozens of airline and airport labor unions as well as disability and health care advocacy groups have sounded off in support of Cohen’s legislation.

“The realities of commercial air travel today — including widely differing passenger ages and physical abilities, language barriers, seat pods blocking access across aisles, and ever-shrinking seat size and pitch — all come into play when an evacuation becomes necessary,” Ed Sicher, president of the Allied Pilots Association, wrote in a statement attached to Cohen’s press release.

One notable supporter is Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the former U.S. Airways pilot who in 2009 successfully landed his disabled airliner in New York’s Hudson River, saving 155 passengers and crew.

“The safety improvements in the EVAC Act are essential and will enhance passenger and crew safety by making aircraft evacuation standards better reflect the reality of emergency evacuations — full aircraft, people of all ages and physical abilities,” said Sullenberger, who until July 2022 was the U.S. ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization. “It will save lives when seconds count.”

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Categories / Government, National, Politics

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