Haneda crash spotlights evacuations: Can passengers get out fast enough?
09.02.2024 - 16:21
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