tiny seats

Sep 14, 2017

US court filing makes serious safety allegations about tight seating

A US court case concerning 'secret' safety issues in current airliners gives rise to a strong if alarming response from Boeing

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Coffin class or business class? A Boeing patent drawing of a three aisle wide-body ‘premium’ concept

It is quite likely the Daily Beast discourages readers with its mast head title and some of its in-one’s face reporting, but today’s publication of a US court document related to the safety issues raised by increasingly tight airliner seating is of obvious concern.

Part of the report deals specifically with the wider issues arising from the successful actions of the crew of QF32, the Airbus A380 that suffered a catastrophic engine disintegration and control surface damage on departure from Singapore in 2010.

Qantas has been contacted for a response to the following section of the report, and CASA has been asked to provide a more holistic response.

There could not be a better illustration of how detached from reality these tests are than the example of Qantas Flight QF32. This involved the largest airplane in the world, the Airbus A380. Normally this super-jumbo carries around 550 passengers but its evacuation tests were carried out using its maximum capacity of 853 passengers, according to the 90-second rule with only half the exits available.

On November 4, 2010, Flight QF32 suffered a catastrophic engine failure on its climb out from Singapore en route to Sydney, Australia. Shrapnel from the engine tore through vital systems and seriously degraded the pilots’ ability to control the airplane.

There were 469 people on board. The pilots did a remarkable job getting the jet back down on the Singapore runway, but were faced with multiple failures. One engine could not be shut down and, most dangerous of all, the brakes had become red hot from the strain of stopping the airplane, just short of the end of the runway. There was a high risk of fire if jet fuel reached the brakes. The captain and crew decided it was far too dangerous to evacuate passengers with a fire risk on the runway and with limited exits available. It was 52 minutes before the first passengers were evacuated, via stairs.

However there are additional issues affecting of course all airlines that would seem to call for a detailed public response from the FAA, and CASA in this country. Such calls have in the past been brushed aside. This call by the Daily Beast claims to have located information that has in effect been allegedly kept from the public by the world’s leading safety regulator, America’s Federal Aviation Administration.

In a case brought by the non-profit activist group Flyers Rights and heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a judge said there was “a plausible life-and-death safety concern” about what is called the “densification” of seats in coach. The court ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to respond to a petition filed by Flyers Rights to promulgate new rules to deal with safety issues created by shrinking seat sizes and space in coach class cabins.

The complainant says the FAA had used outdated studies to argue that no change was needed in the way emergency evacuation tests are carried out—and, at the same time, had refused to release details of the test results because they involved proprietary data.

Boeing however took the Daily Beast seriously, and produced information that allowed  robust if perhaps unintentionally alarming comparisons between the safety features it designed for its 777s compared to those in its 737 lines, including the newest, the 737 MAX series, when all of the available information is considered.

The Daily Beast said:

The fact is that nobody can realistically know how long it would take to evacuate that many passengers from a 737 in a crash—that is, without a crash actually happening. Evacuation testing in its current form is not a real world experience: It has become a charade that gives cover to regulators, airplane makers, and airlines.

The airlines have now reached the point of reducing the space allotted to each passenger in coach to the barest minimum. In terms of comfort the result is often barely tolerable. In terms of safety the consequences could be dire.

Nevertheless, if Boeing can so generously participate in the discussion the Daily Beast had caused, it is reasonable to expect much more by way of disclosure and discussion from the FAA, which the court has given a deadline of December 28 for a further response to its orders.

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11 thoughts on “US court filing makes serious safety allegations about tight seating


    there’s virtually no difference is seat space in all narrowbodies. Seat are exactly the same width & with new slimline seats, airlines can reduce seat pitch & at the same time, increase legroom.
    It’s only when airline put 9 across in A330’s & 10 across in B777’s & B787’s that seat width changes. But there have been 9 across in A330’s for nearly 3 decades now, I think.

    1. Ben Sandilands

      Well, I have to agree in terms of comfort this century, after the spacious economy class indulgences of Ansett before everything went very wrong or right, depending on how we wish to read the merits of very affordable flying versus workable toilets and bone pain in a world where everyone is getting bigger. But the US court case is about the life or death issues of evacuating crowded jet cabins in real life rather than engineered emergency evacuation test for type certification. Comfort isn’t the issue. Getting out alive is.

      1. Sue B

        I miss Ansett. My husband laughs at me whenever I say that.

  2. Mark Skinner

    I suggest a new test.

    Each new proposed layout should be tested as follows: The timer starts on the evacuation order. A standard number of funnel web spiders is released along with the face masks to ensure the requisite degree of panic. Test subjects are told that there are wads of FREE money in selected overhead lockers to simulate the usual desire to take important souvenirs during real emergencies. Lights should go out after 30 seconds, plunging the cabin in darkness. Water should begin to lap around people’s ankles at forty seconds, and tear gas introduced at the one minute mark.

    Naturally enough, the cabin attendants must be ill-trained, and heavily accented non-native speakers of the purchasing airline’s base. Test subject selection should contain a specific mix of asthmatic, claustrophobic, and obese subjects with psychopathic tendencies.

    Of course, in the case of it being difficult to recruit subjects, a gratuity of $15.00 could be offered. This amount being enough to motivate most travellers to switch to a cheaper dodgy airline, so will attract the optimum test subject profile.

    1. Douglas Irvin

      A realistic test would have a small proportion of-
      First time travellers
      Parents/s with babies
      Unaccompanied minors
      Wheelchair and/or disabled pax
      Non-native language speakers
      Idiot who take carry-ons

      This would be a genuinely realistic test.

    2. Mack

      I began to read your suggestions as a joke, but realized you’re absolutely correct. Just the delaying element of passengers attempting to retrieve & then retain carry-on gubbins shows no sign of being removed from real-world evacuations. Short of arming the cabin crew, I’m not sure you ever could.
      History tells us that US manufacturers, sometimes with FAA or airline complicity, are prepared to conceal dangerous conditions where profit may be impinged. It will take the deaths of hundreds of people, or more correctly, the lawsuits from hundreds of families, before anything will change.

      I do not think for a moment that airlines have reached the “OK, we can’t make this any more uncomfortable” point yet. People will need to die, if they haven’t already.

  3. graybul

    I’m an older male, small to medium framed who in earlier decades was a regular mid/long distance ‘flyer.’ Ben is correct. The debate is about either ‘comfort’ or, ‘survivability.’ Comfort is straightforward. Unless fortunate enough to travel First/Business, the entire Economy experience on current day single aisle 737 is barely endurable.

    As regards survivability . . . depends solely upon multiple variabilities that in part might best be described as ‘perfect storm’ circumstances. A reasonable conclusion being the Industry has accepted an economic imperative . . . and favours in the event of a ‘whole of aircraft default’ a defendable casualty range. In brutal terms the Industry has come down on an actuarial loss percentage.

    A bit like on a peak hour crammed Collins St tram. The difference being it may be unsafe but the duration limited and if necessary, avoidable. Whereas, a fully loaded aircraft offers zero options and is in effect, the accepted transportation business model.

  4. Dan Dair

    Whilst I don’t wish to sound like an advocate for the status-quo, regarding the sardine-style of packing-’em-in,
    the manufacturers have to use some kind of platform for their evacuation tests.
    The idea of employing a ‘best-case’ scenario, but with half the doors unavailable doesn’t, IMO, overall seem all that bad a plan.?
    It obviously IS a ‘best-case’ scenario, based presumably on the idea of something like a rejected take-off or emergency-landing, where the aircraft is intact & stable upon all of it’s undercarriage.?

    My personal issue with increase of seating on a wide-range of aircraft,
    is that almost all of these aircraft have never actually been the subject of an actual evacuation test using the current platform.?
    Most have had the seat increase approved by the regulators on an ‘extrapolation’ theory principle.!

    The A380 is the exception to all this, because no-one has yet flown one at the ‘approved’ capacity.

    But the Boeing B777, 787 & 737 as well as A330 & possibly A321 have never (AFAIK) been physically re-tested for their evacuation capability, after their capacity was upgraded.?
    IMO that’s definitely the elephant in the room.!

    1. Mark Skinner


      The approach used in determining this is a very similar one used historically by professional engineers in other areas such as structural safety. That is, before engineers were able to analyse a particular design because of its complexity, they would “proof test” a full sized model or prototype. That is, the prototype would be loaded up by some means, and if it survived a specified load, the design was passed and production would proceed. Of course, as knowledge improved, and computer simulation/analysis was able to replicate real world outcomes, proof testing of expensive prototypes has declined. The point being that the proof testing was not necessarily reflective of service loads, which may have been too varied to test, but was sufficient that IF the proof test was passed, then that was “proof” that the design and constructed prototype was safe for service conditions.

      I suggest, given the previous heavy engineering bias of most aircraft manufacturers and regulators, this is how evacuation testing evolved. That is, it’s rather a form of proof testing than trying to cover a myriad of different service possibilities.

      1. Dan Dair

        Mark Skinner,
        I’m not trying to suggest that the ‘engineering-principles’ are in any way flawed, or that there is any malice in the use of such principles.

        The point I’m trying to get at twofold;
        1. That there has to be some kind of testing platform & the manufacturers have on in place, which might be described as a ‘best-case’ scenario, minus half the exits.
        2. That most of the aircraft configurations currently flying, have never actually been submitted for a physical examination under those ‘best-case’ conditions.

        As you correctly identify, there is a test in place, but instead of saying “OK, we’ve changed this thing (ie. the seating configuration), let’s do a physical test, to see if we’re still up to standard, with these changes;
        They say, “right, we’ve made the changes, what does the computer say about them”.?

        IMO the standard-form of actual evacuation test is the equivalent of your ‘proof-test’.
        The evac test doesn’t include, people with walking difficulties, people with children, people leaving with carry-on luggage.! Why, because even ‘real-world’ modelling that is far too complicated.!!!
        But, all aircraft have to meet that ‘proof-test’ standard before certification.
        and then the regulators allow manufacturers to change the number & density of the seating plan, but don’t require further ‘proof-testing’ of the new passenger-load.?

        As an example, the original B737’s had around 120 seats & 6 exits. The latest plans are for aircraft with perhaps another 80 seats but only two more exits.!!!
        How can we actually know how safe such an aircraft is, unless we can see some real evac test results
        The B787 in it’s ‘dreamliner’ guise was I think 7-across in economy, but it’s now 9-across for most operators.
        How do we know it’s really as safe to evacuate from as the computer modelling suggests,
        because it’s never actually had a ‘proof-test’, to prove the modelling is accurate.?

  5. Jacob HSR

    It looks like some seats will face backwards in order to fit more 180 degree beds?

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