MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
If you're tired of tight airplane seats with no legroom, well, you're out of luck. The Federal Aviation Administration is refusing to regulate the size of these seats, saying it sees no evidence that filling smaller seats with bigger passengers slows emergency evacuations. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: When most of us board a plane, we locate our seat. And if you're like me, you suck in your gut to squeeze past the aisle seat and twist a bit to wedge yourself into yours.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of Delta, the SkyTeam and our global partners, welcome aboard.
SCHAPER: We passengers often tune out the announcements. But this time, pay close attention to the evacuation instructions.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This aircraft has two forward doors, one on each side, four window exits over the wings and two doors in the back.
SCHAPER: Now, look around the cabin. See any empty seats? Is everyone trim, fit and spry? Could they leap up into the aisle and rush off the plane in less than 90 seconds as the FAA requires? The agency's safety officials think so. And they've based that decision in part on this.
SCHAPER: It's video from a Boeing evacuation test run. On the video, you see passengers sitting in a simulated cabin. And when they hear alarms and shouting, they calmly and quietly get up and quickly move to the proper exits.
ERIN BOWEN: Those people are volunteers. They know exactly what they're going to be doing.
SCHAPER: Erin Bowen is chair of the behavioral and social sciences department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
BOWEN: They have dressed appropriately for that task in the right kind of shoes. And they're not stopping to get their phone out to record the evacuation. They're not stopping to grab their overhead bags or their under-seat bags.
SCHAPER: Bowen adds that the test passengers are not old. They aren't too overweight. They don't have disabilities. And there are no children. She's done research on how people really behave in an aviation crisis, and it's often more like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Go. Go. Go. Go. Quiet.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Go.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Let's go. Go. Go. Go.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Wait.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We can't go [expletive].
SCHAPER: This is cell phone video from inside an American Airlines 767 that aborted its takeoff at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in October of 2016 when an engine caught fire. Panicked passengers push and shove their way to the exits even while some still struggle to get out of their seats. About 20 people were hurt, and it took well over two minutes to evacuate that burning plane. Again, the FAA standard is 90 seconds. And Erin Bowen points out that was set in 2006, when most Americans were a little slimmer, planes had fewer seats and more seats were empty. Now...
BOWEN: You've got passengers who are getting larger. And you've got seats that are not only themselves getting smaller but are getting crammed in into more narrow aisles and more narrow rows.
SCHAPER: No one from the FAA would speak on air for this story. But in a filing in response to an appeals court ruling, Dorenda Baker, the FAA's head of aviation safety, cites no evidence that smaller seats, larger passengers and less room between rows, quote, "hamper the speed of passenger evacuation." But that ruling isn't sitting well with many airline passengers. Paul Hudson is with the group Flyers Rights.
PAUL HUDSON: Well, it's really become almost like a torture class.
SCHAPER: Hudson argues that tinier seats are not just unsafe for evacuations but can cause blood clots and other health problems and lead to more passenger conflicts.
HUDSON: We have space regulations for transporting animals, for transporting prisoners, but we don't seem to have anything for regular passengers.
SCHAPER: Hudson is hoping that outraged passengers will pressure Congress to force the FAA to regulate seat size, something that could be part of an FAA reauthorization bill that could pass later this year. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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