Reality check on FAA Seat Width/Pitch Evacuation tests at CAMI

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New FAA study will look at relation between airplane seat size and evacuation speed

Civil Aerospace Medical Institute has FlexSim “laboratory”

Try to measure correlation pitch/width and evacuation time

Configurations: 2 seats on each side of the aisle, 2/3, and a full size of 3 seats on each side of the aisle

“Starting next month, more than 700 Oklahomans will help aviation regulators decide how airline seat dimensions affect emergency evacuations.

The research study will focus on variables that could speed up or complicate a mad dash out of an airplane and inform regulations on how tight airlines can squeeze in passengers.

Specifically, researchers are interested in the space between armrest interiors and seat pitch, the distance between one point on a seat with the same point on the seat in front of it. Test are scheduled to begin in November at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center.

Stacey L. Zinke-McKee, a medical research official at FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI), said pulling test participants from Oklahoma’s demographic will give a good representation of the average flier.

“Our goal is to see if there are any safety implications associated with varying seat pitch and width,” Zinke-McKee said. “We want to make sure humans are protected when they fly.”

Over the span of 12 days, 720 test subjects will break into teams and be rushed out of a simulator called the FlexSim. Officials will then review video of the evacuations and produce a report expected to be filed in the summer of 2020.

The FlexSim is a realistic simulation of a large commercial jet interior; it gives researchers the option to create smoke in the cabin and several other situations, including a water landing. The seat pitch tests, however, are designed to be simple.

“In order to keep scientific integrity, we really need to minimize the number of variables,” Zinke-McKee said. “So if we’re looking specifically at seat pitch and width associated with egress times, then we need to focus just on those variables.”


CAMI researcher David Weed said that while the FAA has performed tests on human factors, this study will be the first of its kind.

“We’ve never done research specifically looking at seat pitch,” he said. “We’ve always been concerned about flow rates of the doors, how fast people can get through the doors, off a slide, onto the ground.”

Those results were used to write regulations on how many people can fit onto an airplane based on the number of exits. Ultimately, the FAA will set minimum passenger seat dimensions as directed last year by Congress.

The study will not include data on animals, children, disabled passengers, luggage, evacuation slides or the benchmark evacuation time of 90 seconds.”

As with any unique scientific analysis, there are no existing studies from which to help design the seat evacuation study. For example, there may be no direct correlation between pitch/width and evacuation time. FlexSim is designed to reconfigure the test cabin from 2 seats on each side of the aisle, 2/3, and a full size of 3 seats on each side of the aisle. With so many potential seating arrangements, the assessment matrix—e.g. “rows of 3 seats with pitches from X” to Z” and widths from X” to Z” then rows of 4 seats…then 3 seats one side of a row and 2 on the other…. ”—will require a lot of test reiterations and that means time.

CAMI is assessing two controlled variables, but the measures of merits may be outside of those two factors. A bigger impediment to a passenger’s exiting the row and jumping down the emergency chute may be the carry-ons surrounding the seat.





This study is being driven by consumers/Congress complaining about the airlines reducing pitch/width to increase capacity/lower fares. The gravamen of the passengers’ criticism has more to do with COMFORT than evacuation. The FAA Reauthorization Act mandate may lead to a conclusion that the existing seating is SAFE. It is also quite possible that two variables analysis will not conclude that greater pitch or width are required for safety.

Global aviation safety has moved towards criteria which are performance-based (i.e. engineering analysis of risk factors defining what performance is required) and away from prescriptive standards ( regulations written in a one-size-fits-all context and are easily “confirmed” rather than analyzed). The ninety second rule is a performance standard—can a fully loaded airliner be evacuated in a minute and a half?

Finally, as we speak, technology may be solving the problem.










Under the constitution, Congress can and may pass laws like HR 302 § 577. At the same time, these Members want the FAA to respond to a long list of other required studies/rule-makings/actions. One wonders if the CAMI study merits priority over the other mandates.


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