air safety

Mar 9, 2016

Seat squeeze struggle might get somewhere if safety is the focus

The policy of airlines opting to physically hurt their passengers with tighter, tinier seats to improve accounting metrics isn't meeting any regulatory resistance, but what if the safet

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

The policy of airlines opting to physically hurt their passengers with tighter, tinier seats to improve accounting metrics isn’t meeting any regulatory resistance, but what if the safety issues were highlighted?

When you next jam yourself into such atrocities as 9 across in a 787 or A330, or 10 across in 777, look around as ask whether your would be among those to burn to death in a dire emergency involving an evacuation from a full flight in whatever you are seated in.

The debate about tiny tight seating has largely been lost to date because the argument that the passengers are to blame by insisting that a cheap fare is on  the whole their  paramount consideration is a compelling statement of the obvious.

There has been some resistance in Europe, where Lufthansa and British Airways decided that they should screw down their premium regional business class cabins in their single aisle jets to the same lack of legroom as their economy cabins.

But overwhelmingly, safety authorities are impervious to calls that some minimum seating space requirements need to be set by government, despite the trans border nature of flying in many parts of the world, where the rules are often made by different sovereign powers who are parties to the air traffic agreements applying to all the flag carriers competing for traffic between various countries.

Most of the flights that operate international services to Australia aren’t flown by Australian carriers.

This report, on the seat law proposals of American Senator, is but one of many appearing it the US, where an aging and increasingly obese population is being shoved into ever tighter cabins, a trend that is also apparent in Australia and in full service as well as low cost brands of airlines.

Progress might however be made if the safety aspects of tight cabin configurations were the focus of consumer agitation.  Those of us who fly regularly, if as little as possible, know that the claims about a full flight meeting the standards set in the type of jet evacuation test during certification are problematical.

That test is passed prior to type certification by a trained cabin crew getting everyone out of the jet inside 90 seconds with only half the exits working. The words ‘out of’ are important. Cabin crew are trained to throw people down slides if necessary to ensure  they leave the jet before it quite possibly explodes in flames. They are trained to do this in the dark, in cabins that may be full of smoke, and the certification test in done without prior crew knowledge as to which exits will actually be allowed to function normally once the evacuate order is given.

Evacuation tests, which are increasingly rare in airliners these days, often ended with people being taken away in ambulances with broken legs or other sometimes quite serious injuries.

In real life, evacuations generally take longer than 90 seconds, because people block aisles grabbing bags, or even if has been suggested, taking selfies, and doing other idiotic things. In the last year for example a more than half empty British Airways 777 on fire at Las Vegas took about four times longer to evacuate than the regulations for certification stipulated, as measured by the copious social media of the event taken not just by passengers on that 777, but airport runway monitoring cameras and those used by travellers sitting in nearby jets awaiting takeoff or pushback.

However in the case of the high density configurations now appearing on many once spacious airliners, no cabin evacuation certification test was actually done in real life, because the jets concerned were derivatives or stretches of the original design.

Airbus and Boeing have been able to assure the regulators that derivatives of airliners can use modelling based on the original designs to demonstrate, or for those whose bodies are on the line, faux-demonstrate that the stretched cabins and the rearranged doors and exits would have allowed the same safety outcomes.

The risk is that they won’t perform as modeled in a real crash, notwithstanding the exceptional improvements that have been made in the safety of scheduled airliner operations world wide.

It is impossible today to reach the aisle of many full airliners in 90 seconds in normal operations upon landing, never mind make it to in a dire emergency.

As all airlines always say in their various press release statements after an incident, the safety of our passengers is our number one concern.

In relation to high density seating they need to be asked to prove it, in real life. The way to do that is with full, original model type tests, of their highest density single aisle and wide body airliner models.

That notable photo of ‘no shopping being left behind’ in an emergency evacuation of a Cathay Pacific 747 at Shanghai in 2011 is shown below.


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13 thoughts on “Seat squeeze struggle might get somewhere if safety is the focus

  1. Fred Myers

    And all of the above begs the question concerning the number of “movement challenged” passengers on flights, as noted by the number of wheel chairs waiting in the jet ways on arrivals.
    At what point does (or can) the airline say – We can no longer guarantee safe transport of a person with this level of disability?

  2. comet

    How do we know that the delays in evacuating passengers from the burning 777 in Las Vegas were the result of people taking selfies and carrying shopping bags?

    It was probably caused by packing too many large people into a small cabin space.

  3. Ben Sandilands

    Because of the videos shown on line, including those taken from proximate airliners and runway monitoring cameras.

  4. 777 Steve

    Ben, human nature is a funny thing, it doesn’t really matter in the real world what can be demonstrated, there have been enough instances over the years of incidents where something was unforeseen and ultimately people died, the British Airtours 737 at MAN immediately springs to mind.
    There will always be a % of passengers who for their own reasons will value their possessions and personal time over listening and absorbing a safety demo, they will roll the dice regarding the risk they assume (as do the airlines and regulators) in the hope the evolution rather than revolution in design and regulation will keep them safe.
    Me, I’m a safety tragic, I know the number of rows to exits ahead and behind, I keep my shoes on until after we are airborne, and most importantly my passport, wallet and mobile device are always kept on my person for takeoff and landing……you never know.

  5. wordfactory

    You’ll never win the argument on economics – travellers are voting with their feet. Price is king. If being stuffed into a tiny seat is the price people have to pay for a cheap fare, they’ll pay it. However, now that JetBlue has surrendered to the Wall Street screen jockeys, there’s a yawning gap in the market – and not just in America – for a business model that gives economy passengers the space they crave (Remember that seating space is consistently voted the No.1 issue by travellers in surveys.). Allegiant Airlines provides a clue, achieving industry-leading profitability with pre-loved aircraft. Especially now that the price of fuel has collapsed and is unlikely to rebound any time soon, the cost of fleet ownership is again one of an airline’s biggest outlays. But it can’t be done with narrowbodies: widebody economies of scale are necessary (think Compass Mark I’s A300:600Rs with 34-inch pitch in economy). That means low unit costs and low frequency (borrowing from the Allegiant model). Planes that are 10-20 years old are as safe as new ones with a quality maintenance culture.

  6. nonscenic

    Safety might be one concern but in flight health might be a possible salvation against the horrors of long haul cattle class.
    For long haul flights passengers have some choice of whether to pay for comfort and health. For short haul airlines increasingly are using single class cabins where everyone gets the same ration of space no matter the fare paid (apart from the crazy trend of airlines marketing exit row seats for a premium to the obese)
    At least on short haul the risk of adverse health effects is lower.
    A few legal cases and adverse publicity against airlines who cram passengers into long haul sardine cans might hopefully reverse the trend

  7. Allan Moyes

    comet @ 2

    Ben also mentions that the flight was “more than half empty”.

    You must also have seen the numerous YouTubes of d***** coming down slides with bags galore – who cares if the slide gets ripped in the process, thus trapping those behind them.

    Another issue is the individual emergency demonstration given to those sitting in the exit rows. Many just nod their heads whether they have read and understood the safety card at all – I’ve seen those who haven’t even looked at it.

    Some possibly suffer from a medical condition which they are not going to disclose or they will be moved from the roomier seat, or are too frail to do anything with the emergency exit door as appearances can be deceptive, but they sit there anyway. How are the FA’s to know otherwise unless the pax divulges the information?

    All of us on this blog have probably flown enough to notice the number of passengers who don’t even look up from whatever last minute texting they are doing to look at the safety demonstration. Human nature, but I hope none of them ever get in my way in an emergency!

  8. Dan Dair

    Allan Moyes,
    I agree with you,
    If someone was d1ck1n9 about with the overwing exit door of a B737, preventing my timely exit in an emergency, I’d be very inclined to hit them with the door before I threw it out of the aircraft.!!!!
    777 Steve,
    I’m very safety conscious too,
    but then, I know a bit about aircraft & I’ve had risk-assessment training.
    Most of the people around will have had neither & the airlines like it that way.
    They want to comply with the regulations
    whilst implying in their marketing that it’ll never happen to you.?
    My good-lady, who is quite well-upholstered, would never accept an exit-row seat, unless it meant not actually getting on the aircraft.
    Exit-row seats have the table-tray in the armrest & as such the seat base is considerably narrower that normal.
    The extra legroom is nice, but not at the expense of 4-5 hours wedged into a truly tiny seat.

  9. Frequent Traveller

    Let’s look specifically at the narrowbody segment : recently, the Exit Limits of three types underwent readjustment upwards, namely :
    – A321 from 220 pax previously —> 240 pax now
    – A320 from 180 pax previously —> 289 pax now
    – 738 from 189 pax previously —> 200 pax now

    In all these three cases, the readjustment was authorised by FAA/EASA based on mere paperwork, using Operational Research numerical modelling EXTRAPOLATING previous results of live Emergency Evacuation tests performed way back in time, for LOPAs pitched @ 30″ as eg in the case of the A321 : distance from rhs doorsill 1L —> lhs doorsill 4L = 56 frames = 56 x 21″ = 1176″, less twice 31″ (X-aisle passageways to EE doors 2 and 3) less 15″ (up-front legroom row 1) = 1099″ = 36.6333 rows x 30″ = 220 pax …But as Ben very correctly proposes, nowhere is it written that when densifying the LOPA from 30″ down to 28″ (as in the case of the A321 @ 240 pax) the assumptions (flowpath to safe egress, aisle density, seat extraction vs excuse-me factor etc …) are valid because those conditions have never been tested before. We enter a world of unknowns, if INTERPOLATING possibly would be acceptable, here we are EXTRAPOLATING. Personally I think FAA/EASA have been much too accomodating. Those new Exit Limits should be corroboprated by a new round of LIVE Evacuation demos full scale, for A320, 738 and A321.

  10. En Quiry

    What is the point at which people will refuse to travel by air. Apparently someone worked out years ago the price point at which people would stop buying petrol. There must be a hazard-to-wellbeing point for air travel. Just build world wide fast trains and be done with it.

  11. 40years

    Allan Moyes @ 7,
    On my last four international legs (on Legacy full-service carriers) I occupied the emergency exit row. At no stage, despite my expectations, was I given an individual, or group, safety briefing, or any instruction re door and slide operation. Nor was my attention directed to the safety cards. When I queried this on the last leg I was told that the FA would look after things. A matter for CASA? Or is Regulatory capture in full swing?

  12. Herp A'Derp


    That would be because unless the emergency exit was the over-wing, pop the window out type, you would not require a briefing. On most widebodies, every exit is a full door, and manned by a member of cabin crew. They most certainly don’t want you to know how to open it.

    On a widebodied aircraft, the emergency exit row doesn’t come with extra responsibility, just extra leg-room, and if the unfortunate occurs, you’ll be first off!

  13. GeorgeD

    We know that people who are prepared for an event (A/B employees who know what’s coming) are much better at it than people in shock and confusion.

    I imagine that any proper testing regime would see most aircraft downrated by large amounts. If that caused an increase in road traffic this would be a net negative in overall loss of life (as the road traffic spike post-9/11 demonstrated). I imagine that regulators are happy with this perverse tradeoff, even if they don’t view it in such terms.

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