By Robert Silk  – Jan 29, 2024

As flames enveloped Japan Airlines Flight 516 early this month, the flight crew oversaw an orderly evacuation that brought all 379 passengers and crew aboard the Airbus A350-900 aircraft to safety.

“When I look back at it, it’s miraculous that everybody made it out,” said Anthony Brickhouse, an aviation safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. 

But one element of that remarkable Jan. 2 evacuation at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport offers reason for concern. The evacuation took 18 minutes to complete. International standards as well as FAA regulations require that aircraft must be able to be evacuated within 90 seconds.

Now, amid ongoing debate over whether the evacuation testing procedures utilized by the FAA are sufficient to produce reliable results, Flight 516 has the potential to serve as something of a laboratory. 

“This provides a real-world example,” said Hassan Shahidi, CEO of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation. “The Japan Transport Safety Board will document everything. We’ll know the composition of the passengers. How many infants there were. How many mobility-limited passengers there were. The regulators will be taking a hard look at that.”

The FAA undertook its most recent evacuation tests in late 2019 and early 2020 under a congressional mandate aimed at determining whether the denser seat configurations that airlines have instituted in recent decades stand in the way of the required 90-second evacuation time frame. 

Those tests indicated that they don’t, which the FAA detailed in a report it made public in 2022. But the agency simultaneously acknowledged that the tests did not necessarily yield a definitive result, since they relied solely on able-bodied adults under age 60. No senior citizens, children or individuals with mobility disabilities participated, spurring significant criticism from consumer advocates.

In the aftermath of those reports, the FAA launched a regulatory review process that could eventually lead to the setting of size standards for commercial airplane seats as well as for the space between aircraft rows. The agency received 26,000 public comments on the matter prior to the comment cutoff date of Nov. 1, 2022, and said review of those comments is ongoing. 

In the meantime, Congress appears likely to address evacuation testing standards as part of its next long-term FAA funding reauthorization, which was originally slated for passage by the end of last September but has been delayed twice amid partisan disputes in the Senate. The current reauthorization deadline is March 8, though further extensions are possible. 

Are evacuation tests realistic?

Existing testing criteria prescribes that at least 35% of participants be over age 50, at least 40% be female and that three dolls must be carried by participants to simulate passengers 2 years old or younger.

The criteria also requires that carry-on items be distributed in aisles and emergency exit access routes to create obstructions. In addition, only half of the aircraft’s exit doors can be used in tests.

The House version of the FAA reauthorization bill, which passed last July with bipartisan support, would task an FAA advisory committee with evaluating and proposing updates to evacuation testing requirements. Among other items, the committee would be asked to determine whether existing testing criteria realistically accounts for children and infants, passengers who do not speak English, passengers with disabilities and service animals.

Meanwhile, an earlier Senate proposal also called for a review of the ability of passengers of varying heights and weights to efficiently evacuate a plane. That language stems from concerns that growing obesity among Americans in recent decades is likely to slow evacuations, especially as aircraft seating configurations become tighter.

The House bill also calls for an exploration of whether there are ways to more accurately represent groups of passengers who are unable to consent to participation in evacuation testing, such as babies or people with developmental disabilities. 

Brickhouse said that a 90-second evacuation standard might not be realistic. But technology couldNote be a key to improving evacuation testing methodology. 

It’s not possible to fully replicate an emergency situation in a planned test, he said. One thing tests can’t replicate is the startle effect that passengers would have during an actual emergency. But the application of AI, in particular, has the potential to improve test reliability.

“I really think this is an area that needs to be studied and for us not to be complacent about,” he said.

What Japan Airlines did right

The successful Japan Airlines evacuation was guided through just three of the plane’s eight emergency exits, the other five having been rendered unusable by the fire. 

One thing that was noteworthy and important in the evacuation, both Brickhouse and Shahidi said, is that videos show that passengers left their carry-on items behind.

“It would have been a disaster if someone had blocked the aisle with luggage,” Shahidi said. 

He credited the flight crew, and the airline’s flight crew training, for facilitating the casualty-free evacuation. 

Japan Airlines’ preflight safety presentations, he noted, are also expansive in explaining that passengers should leave carry-on bags behind. Other airlines, he said, should consider strengthening that element of their safety instructions.

https://www.travelweekly.com/Travel-News/Airline-News/Analysis-airplane-evacuations