WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth introduced a bill on Thursday that would require the Federal Aviation Administration to rethink how it tests airline seat sizes. The proposed legislation, called the Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin (EVAC) Act, would require the FAA to look at how children, seniors, disabled people and carry-on bags can impact aircraft evacuation times.
Airlines have been downsizing their seats for years, leading Congress to set new standards in 2018 to ensure passengers can evacuate a plane in 90 seconds or less. But the testing has been widely criticized for not considering things like passengers with disabilities.
"When you're testing with not-real-world conditions, then that gets me worried," Duckworth told CBS News. "Airlines are traveling now with just about every seat filled. You can't just practice evacuating an aircraft that is only 30% full, because that's not the way commercial aviation looks today."
Duckworth, who lost both her legs while serving in Iraq, doesn't believe she would be able to evacuate a plane in under 90 seconds "under the normal conditions" she usually travels in.
In a statement to CBS News, the FAA said it is continuing to review the thousands of public comments it received earlier this year on airline seat sizes. In the more than 26,000 submissions the agency received, the word "torture" appeared in over 200 comments.
But the FAA says its testing has followed guidelines that were outlined by Congress.
The FAA has no rules for seat dimensions. Seat width has gone down as much as four inches over the last 30 years — to as little as 16 inches wide. Seat pitch, which is the distance between rows, has shrunk from about 35 inches to as little as 28 inches, allowing airlines to add more seats on a plane.
The FAA found in tests in 2019 and 2020 that "seat size and spacing did not adversely affect the success of emergency evacuations." But while the volunteer passengers in the simulations had varying seat sizes, they did not have to deal with obstacles like smoke, darkness or luggage, and they were in groups of 60 — nowhere near a full plane load.
All participants in the simulations were also able-boded adults under 60. Then-FAA administration Steve Dickson acknowledged the results were "useful" but "not necessarily definitive."
Consumer advocates and some former airline workers, including Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot behind the 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" emergency landing, have argued that a packed plane does impact evacuation time.
"On our flight, it took over three minutes to evacuate everyone partly because the airplane was filling up rapidly with water from back to front. But also because it was real life and we had a full aircraft," Sullenberger said.
Airlines said safety is their top priority and they will continue to work with the FAA.