Do Tighter Seats Slow Down Emergency Evacuations?

Nov 6, 2015

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We all have our own reason for loathing airlines’ constant need to tighten seats in an effort to maximize space. From a business perspective, it’s smart — more people on board means more money. But from the customer’s perspective, more seats means less leg room and an overall uncomfortable flying experience. But, is there another level to the debate that hasn’t previously been thought about that could benefit the customer’s stance. Is it unsafe for seats to be tighter together?

According to a Wall Street Journal column, that was the question at hand for researchers who ultimately determined that it’s difficult to actually tell if tighter seats equate to unsafe conditions in the case of an emergency evacuation. Although researchers claim it’s hard to tell if the tight seats make a difference, they said the likelihood is not high. Instead, they said that the crowding of aisles; spacing of passengers throughout the plane; travelers’ knowledge of the procedures; and the size, age and gender of the passengers themselves are more likely to impact how quickly a plane is evacuated.

A row in Delta's 757.
An economy row in Delta’s 757.

The National Transportation Safety Board has conducted investigations on the topic, but have shown no impact on the process of evacuating aircraft with denser seating. Although airline regulators haven’t formally studied evacuations under tighter space conditions, the Federal Aviation Administration’s principal cabin safety investigator, Cynthia McLean, said the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute plans to request funding from Congress to lead research on the topic. In the study, they plan to look at seat density and its effect on how efficiently passengers can exit the plane.

Currently, pitch within the economy cabin varies from airline to airline. Some low-cost carriers, such as Spirit and Frontier, only offer passengers 28 inches of pitch, which is the lowest of all major US short-haul carriers. The standard pitch used to be 31 or 32 inches, but many airlines are lowering that number, including American, Delta and United, which have some rows at 30 inches. If you’re flying long-haul, those extra couple of inches can make all the difference.

However, the studies and results of how timely planes can be evacuated have been criticized because of how unrealistic they are. In order for pilots to begin flying, they must go through an extensive training process and in order for airplanes to enter service, their manufacturers must prove that they can be evacuated within 90 seconds using only half of the exits. Those who criticize the emergency tests say that they’re not realistic enough because no one in simulations has mobility issues and research has shown that people hesitate more at the doors in real emergencies.

Dr. Edward Galea, a professor at London’s University of Greenwich who studies airplane evacuations and has developed a widely used airplane evacuation model, said that tighter seating arrangements do not have a negative impact on evacuation. However, he said that with more people on board, bringing the number closer to maximum capacity, there is an impact on safety solely because there are more people that need to get off the plane. Research has shown that the most important factor in surviving a crash is an individual’s agility – age, gender and weight have shown to be significant factors.

Familiarize yourself with evacuation protocol to evacuate quickly in case of an emergency. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Familiarize yourself with evacuation protocol to evacuate quickly in case of an emergency. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Although you, as a passenger, don’t have any say in how an airline manipulates its seating to tighten the room between rows, there are steps you can take to make yourself safer. Dr. Galea advises passengers to always take the aisle seat if given the choice – sitting in a middle or window seat allows for one or two people, respectively, to exit the plane before you. Also, McLean recommends traveling with a fanny pack to carry all of your most important items – phone, ID, medication, etc. – so you can run with empty hands and not have to delay by retrieving your carry-on bag from the overhead bins.

When it comes to leg room, we can all agree that there’s always room for more. However, there’s no proven correlation between the shrinking amount of space between rows and safety of those on board. Until there is, airlines have little motivation to stop increasing the number of seats on board and start giving us more space.

H/T: Wall Street Journal

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