Full House
              January 13, 2015
Thin is in, when it comes to airline seating.

As we know, the airlines think the benefit of sardining more passengers on a plane outweigh its costs (i.e., extra meals, additional staff, and more complaints over less legroom). For some airlines, this benefit can add millions in additional annual revenue. 

So, the economics of packing more passengers is strong. In fact, Wall Street analysts call it, “Leaving money on the table” if an airline, like JetBlue, does not pack in passengers.

Rarely mentioned is safety. Are passengers who fly on these aircraft more likely to be at risk in an emergency?

The report into the crash of LionAir on final approach to land at Denpasar’s Ngurah Rai International airport in April 2013 has identified several safety issues around the carrier’s emergency response procedures. After the aircraft came to rest in the water, the report shows that the crew handled the evacuation poorly. The first officer initially attempted to evacuate passengers through a cockpit window. When this proved unviable, he conducted the evacuation through a service door. Meanwhile, a flight attendant was unable to detach a life raft from the aircraft. Read more.

An opinion piece in last week’s Aviation Week says yes, and points to aircraft manufacturers opposing efforts to require safety standards on high-density seating.

Yes, was also the conclusion of a 2001 British study considered by European aviation authorities.

To permit the optimum safe brace position, say the researchers, spacing of seat rows would have to increase to 35 inches. And the minimum seat width should be 19.6 inches.

The recent air disasters by Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia make us forget that many airline accidents are survivable.

The critical factor is getting out of the plane quickly after a crash – quickly enough to escape the fire and smoke that all too often follow a crash landing. Tight seating, with narrow aisles, hampers a quick and easy exit.

FlyersRights’ Passenger Bill of Rights calls for regulations against tight seating on the grounds of safety, health and comfort.

Airline Industry’s Biggest “Dirty Little Secret”  

The study raised what could be the airline industry’s biggest “dirty little secret”: economy seating that might be too tight for safety.

An interior photo of Asiana crash at SFO in June 2013 raised the issue of seat pitch and the brace position (leaning forward onto your thighs hands over head) which is infeasible where the seats are too close together. Many survivors of the Asiana crash had a surprising pattern of spine injuries.


What does the FAA say? Not much. Here are their thin requirements for emergency evacuation demonstrations:

“The objective… is to substantiate that the airplane can be evacuated within 90 seconds under the conditions specified without actually conducting the demonstration.

The use of analysis can eliminate the need to conduct a full-scale demonstrations where adequate knowledge is already available from previous full-scale demonstrations or other tests. A decrease in the number of full-scale demonstrations will reduce the number of participants subjected to possible injury” (FAA Advisory, 03/12/12).

Aviation Week points out that while the test includes some realistic aspects of a crash, it neglects critical human factors.

These include passengers who hinder evacuation by trying to take carry-on luggage and the elderly or handicapped who are significantly slower.

Perhaps most importantly, the test disregards how humans behave when faced by a mortal threat (fire, toxic fumes). When panic and primal

 Pacific Western Airlines – Calgary International  Airport – 1984
During the take-off, the flight crew heard a loud bang which was accompanied by a slight veer to the left. The take-off was rejected, and all 119 persons successfully evacuated the aircraft when a severe fuel-fed fire developed.

survival instincts take over, people tend to engage in competitive rather than collaborative working relationships.

This was documented during the 1984 evacuation of a Boeing 737 in Calgary. Investigators found that amid “some pushing, several people went over seat backs to get to the exit ahead of others already in the aisle.”

Interior shot of Western Pacific Airlines after the fire, all occupants were evacuated.

Criticisms of the FAA’s testing go back to 1985 when former congressman Newt Gingrich called evacuation tests “totally out of touch with the real world.”

“A false sense of security to the traveling public” is how the director of fire safety and engineering at the University of Greenwich, Ed Galea, summed it up.

But aircraft manufacturers are likely to oppose efforts for more stringent testing standards given the additional certification time and cost involved,says Aviation Week.

Boeing recently argued that its 787 Dreamliner was similar enough to its previous 767 to bypass evacuation test certification.

However, as airline competition intensifies, the list of carriers using high-density seating increases.

In the event of an emergency when seconds count, more passengers onboard increases and complicates evacuation efforts.

The responsibility lies with federal regulators to ensure these factors are considered when certifying airplanes as safe to fly. In the event that they fail, less legroom may be the least of passenger concerns.

Computer Simulated Evacuation Tests

In The 1990s, against the advice of air safety groups like the 
Aviation Consumer Action Project and the flight attendants union, the FAA
began permitting airline manufacturers to use computer simulations. 
This was done after frequent failure of live tests, even when using young, athletic test subjects who were carefully coached and practiced were used.
It is unlikely that any fully occupied airliner could, in real life conditions, satisfy the emergency evacuation regulation requiring all passengers and crew be able to exit within 90 seconds in low light conditions with half the exits disabled. 
This vital safety regulation was issued after studies of air crashes showed that
most fatalities were the result of post crash fires and drownings that could be avoided by rapid evacuation.

-Paul Hudson
Member, FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee, 
Occupant Safety and Emergency Evacuation Issue Group 

A Flight Attendant’s Input Re. Passengers Changing Seats

A New York state woman was traveling to Alaska on United with her ski club back in March. The group had already flown two legs of the trip – from NYC to Houston, then Houston to Seattle – before it boarded the third plane to take them from Seattle to Anchorage.   

Seeing empty seats on the plane, the passenger went to sat down in a seat that was not her assigned spot.

“I saw many empty rows of seats and I went to sit in one of them,” the passenger tells CBSNews. She says a flight attendant noticed and immediately told her she could not sit there because there were still people expected to board the flight.

The passenger went to her assigned seat, waited until everyone had boarded the plane. She spotted an empty seat in a row with only one other passenger, so she made the switch.

Thing is, that seat was in an exit row, for which United (and other airlines) charge extra for the added legroom.

The flight attendant told her, “You need to pay $109 if you sit here. Give me your credit card.”
Unwilling to pay that upcharge, the passenger says she returned to she seat she’d booked.

Cartoonist: Adey Bryant

She says that’s when one of the flight attendants went to the cockpit. Shortly thereafter, two individuals visited the woman’s seat and asked her to exit the plane, telling her that alternate plans would be made for her flight to Anchorage.

She refused, saying she did not want to be separated from her group and pointing out that she had returned to her original seat as requested.

Refusing to leave the plane, she was taken off by force, reportedly grabbing at seats while being pulled by police officers.

She was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest. She waited in jail for three days before she was able to post bond.

The airlines said federal law requires pre-flight briefing for anyone seated in emergency rows, and balance and weight safety regulations prevent onboard seat changes, the station reported.  

FlyersRights requested a senior flight attendant help us clear up this bizarre story: 
Dear FlyersRights:
I have been unable to ascertain the flight number involved to see if this was a flight crew from Continental or United.  In watching a video of the passenger being arrested and physical dragged off the flight, I noted it looks like a narrow body 737 with television monitors in the seat backs.
I am going to assume that this was a flight flown and staffed by Continental FAs. Also, because I have never heard of this level of passenger abuse and disrespect by legacy United FAs. 
It is my belief that CAL FAs are not trained to “use your resources” and other communication skills training the same way legacy UA FAs are. Infrequently in my flying career, a passenger will see open seats in economy plus and self-upgrade themselves to the exit row(s) or to another row in economy plus. 
In extenuating circumstance (rare) I have “upgraded” passengers to the exit rows or moved them closer forward in economy plus….but have always explained the situation to the person who paid for their seat in an effort to get then approval before I make the move. 
Passengers who self-upgrade “because there is nobody sitting there” are, many times, reported to FAs by other passengers who know the rules. 
In those rare cases where a passenger’s voice gets loud and they begin to displace negative emotion toward me (“they let me move my seat on my last flight!”) I will raise my voice just enough to gather the attention of other passengers (witnesses!) in economy plus (and minus). 
Once I know I have witnesses, I will again explain to the passenger the rule about upgrading to economy plus.  If the self-upgrader continued to insist he/she isn’t going to move, I will add a little drama (drawing in more passenger witnesses) and with a sweeping motion of my arms will say loud enough for people in 1-2 rows to hear: “All these folks in economy plus have all paid extra money or air miles to sit here. I just do not have the authority to upgrade you for free.”   
In 100% of the cases this 3rd level engagement with a self-upgrader has been successful in getting them to return to their seat in embarrassment. 
Never in a million years would I bully or harass a misbehaving passenger like the FAs did on what I strongly suspect was a Continental crewed flight.   
The description of how the passenger was treated by the FAs and captain indicates to me that they were not trained to handle problems onboard the same way legacy United FAs were.   
I dare say that 99.9% of these negative passenger altercations with crew were not legacy United FAs. 
Kate Hanni, founder 
with Paul Hudson, President
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for a Passenger Bill of Rights

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Send comments and tips to KendallCreighton or on Twitter@KendallFlyers.