Advocating before the FAA – two examples

the right to petition
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Petitioning the Government is a First Amendment Right

Advocacy is a skill even when exercising this Right

Multiple elements demonstrated and not in these 2 examples


The FAA Doesn’t Care If You Feel Like a Sardine in That Plane

aircraft aisle

This mother took on airline policies for wheelchairs, and is winning

Mom and test


Two headlines and two different impact on the Federal Aviation Administration. Reading carefully the language, tone and comprehension of the safety authority held by the regulator. Congress has the power to amend statutes and the people have the First Amendment Right “to petition” for changes to change the US Code and the Code of Federal Regulations. “Petition” does not mean demand but is more synonymous with “advocate”. That distinction is not well utilized by one of these groups and has been well observed by the other.

As reported by Joe Nocera, the proponents for wider seats and greater seat pitch[1] are not making much progress with the FAA. He is reporting on the actions of; so, the specific language cited may not be exact representations of the organization’s position:

Joe Nocera








It is always useful in advancing your cause to insult those whom you are requesting change (however right it may be), e.g.

The FAA is a classic case of “regulatory capture — it is more focused on the needs of the industry it is supposed to regulate than on the consumers it is supposed to protect. Letting airplane makers certify their own planes is only one example. Another, I learned recently, is the way the agency approaches airline seats.

…The health and safety of passengers is, of course, the whole point of the FAA’s regulatory authority. Yet it has dealt with the seat situation by bending over backward for the industry. Consider evacuations.

It also helps to misrepresent the situation:

The regulations say that all aircraft must be able to be evacuated in 90 seconds. But, just as with plane certification, the agency allows airlines to do their own testing — and lets them use computer simulations instead of actual humans.

[The regulation referred to always has been imposed on each airline (14 CFR § 121.291 – Demonstration of emergency evacuation procedures) It is actually a test of each carrier’s ability to meet a safety standard. Based on a careful safety risk analysis, computer simulation was approved.]

Then, a consumer advocate is certain to increase its credibility with the FAA, maybe actually Congress, when it ignores that the agency must meet its own procurement and procedural requirements:

Fast forward to December 2019 — two months past the deadline set by Congress. That’s when the FAA finally got around to conducting some tests.

[The organization knew that the tests needed to be conducted in a frame that could be adjusted to meet differing seat and pitch standards. That required the FAA to buy a new “airframe” with that technical capabilities.]

Another useful tactic is to describe a situation as final when it was not:

The tests, conducted at an FAA research facility in Oklahoma City, were ludicrous. It used an aircraft interior with only 60 seats. All the “passengers” were between the ages of 18 and 60, with the majority younger than 30, according to Mr. Hudson, who watched some of the testing. Only one or two passengers were even mildly overweight. There were no impediments, such as baggage or pets. None of the women wore high heels. Oh, and one other thing: People who got out fastest could earn more money.

According to Mr. Hudson, the first test he saw had the seats set at a 16-inch width and a 28-inch pitch; the 60 passengers evacuated in 43 seconds. When the settings were 18-inch width and 32-inch pitch, the evacuation took 37 seconds. Based on these tests, size matters,” Mr. Hudson told me. “It debunks the position of the plane manufacturers.”

[ There were multiple tests. The evacuation passengers were selected from a group of 720. The exercise took 12 days and involved multiple configurations. All of the parameters were discussed in scientific terms in an article that was published. Reality Check On FAA Seat Width/Pitch Evacuation Tests At CAMI.

civil aerospace medical institute logo

 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. bigger impediment to a passenger’s exiting the row and jumping down the emergency chute may be the carry-ons surrounding the seat.

Quite clearly, there are no results from the tests, inexpert opinions to the contrary!!!



Not the rhetoric or statements likely to convince the regulator that the merits of your technical proof are great.




All Wheels Up page


Seeking to require every aircraft to be retrofitted at tremendous expense is not likely to be applauded by the airlines. A mom decided that she needed to prove that her son could ride his wheelchair into a plane and roll to a place where a regular seat had been removed and then have his chair strapped into safety systems installed into the floor.

Her strategy shows how advocacy can work. First, she founded “the volunteer nonprofit All Wheels Up. The small group raised thousands of dollars to pay for the first crash tests to see if a wheelchair locked to the floor could survive plane-crash forces. (It could.)” She took the initiative to propose that her idea could work. She didn’t lecture the FAA or seek support without proof.

Collecting” $25 at a time” from Facebook donors, All Wheels Up Vice President Alan Chaulet said the nonprofit raised $10,000 for an initial safety test of prototype restraint systems. In 2016 and in 2019, Calspan, a respected research laboratory, strapped dummies into surrogate wheelchairs and then Pride Mobility power chairs, attached them to a sled and slung them down tracks at high speeds. One test simulated a taxiing accident and another a crash landing.

That’s smart. Then she found allies– Members of the House and Senate and established disability rights organizations. Plus eventually airline operators and manufacturers — including Airlines for America, the industry association representing all major passenger airlines — have joined the All Wheels Up working groups to brainstorm next steps.

Congress ordered the U.S. Access Board to study the feasibility of a wheelchair restraint system for planes and to discuss technical standards. The Board then used its technical expertise to define   voluntary guidelines for onboard wheelchairs used on commercial passenger aircraft to assist in initiating a rulemaking to improve access to air travel.

From there, meetings have been scheduled and held. On Wednesday February 5th in a Washington, D.C. conference room, federal regulators, aircraft engineers, wheelchair manufacturers and disability advocates worked on practical solutions for the issue.

For decades, travelers and policy advocates had as an ultimate goal a policy that people would be able to roll onto planes and fly from the comfort of their own mobility devices. The last few years they have focused on damage to wheelchairs, tiny lavatories, and service animal rules, among other issues. To have the possibility of true mobility onto and in an aircraft on a regulatory agenda is amazing. As Brad Meier, a product manager for Quantum Rehab and Pride Mobility, said “Honestly, I don’t think we would’ve gotten in the same room without Michele.”

That’s Michele Erwin, the mother of a boy whose need for a wheelchair basically excluded him from travel.  Her pitch and tone, as illustrated by the below section of the article, drew people from being part of the problem to part of the solution:

It’s been getting people to see the hardships wheelchair travelers face.

When I talk about wheelchairs on airplanes, I know what I’m talking about because I have a child in a wheelchair and I know what a wheelchair spot is in a bus or a minivan or train,” she said. Somebody who is not in the disability community won’t even realize that a plane doesn’t have a wheelchair spot.

As a result, flying is “a nightmare” for wheelchair users. That means 50 percent of chair users miss out on work opportunities or leisure travel because they avoid flying altogether, according to an All Wheels Up survey.

Lee Page, senior associate advocacy director for Paralyzed Veterans of America, walked members of the study committee through the process on Wednesday.

After rolling to the end of the jet bridge, chair users must transfer out of their own device into a aisle-chair owned by airlines and designed to navigate the narrow aisles. Some people have enough strength to transfer themselves, but others must be lifted by airline contractors, who have little to no training on how to do so. They then are wheeled backward down the aisle to their assigned seat and again lifted into place by staff.

“FAA standards set a minimum aisle width of 15 inches,” Page said. “My backside is 18 inches by 19 inches. I’m hitting every armrest on the way back.”

It’s a process wheelchair user and their families say is embarrassing, and injuries are common. Airlines have paid millions of dollars when sued after people have been dropped or fell out of the chairs. Even when things go well, people with spinal injuries or sensitive skin might experience injuries from the kinds of bumps and bruises that able-bodied passengers would shrug off.

Rory Cooper, a member of the study committee who also is a professor of rehabilitation engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, summed it up: ‘Currently, the system does put people at risk.’”


DO NOT talk own to the regulator.

USE a concise explanation of the problem.

DO NOT USE an exaggerated description of the existing statute.

AVOID hyperbole intended to attract press coverage.

As a result of her approach, the bureaucrats, so criticized in the prior example, responded as follows:

John Sheldon, a passenger seat expert from the Federal Aviation Administration, said he was confident that airline manufacturers could design a safe system. He also noted that the FAA would be open to waiving some crash-test standards because improving travel for people with disabilities would “clearly” be in the public interest.

“We have a good record of finding a way to get it approved,” he told the committee

 Ever the realist, Ms. Erwin commented:

Erwin is the first to admit, however, that the actual task of redefining air travel for chair users is “very complex and multifaceted.”

To get to true feasibility and certification, we need more funding. … We are talking in the millions of dollars,” Erwin said.

Airplane interiors might have to change to make room for wheelchairs. Chair and restraint manufacturers might need the FAA to set safety and design standards. Plane evacuation plans would have to be updated. Airlines would have to develop new boarding procedures and retrain thousands of employees. And those are just a few of the practical challenges.

“Any organization that says this can happen in two years is misleading the wheelchair community,” she said. “You cannot put a timeline on a project of this magnitude.”

Dealing with the government is not easy. It is not a forum at which to vent frustrations. Even highly sophisticated, large corporations and entrepreneurs  have failed to understand the “right to petition” is not authority to demand. Sometimes, even Inside-the-Beltway aviation trade associations, have used conspicuous PR campaigns to chastise the FAA and coincidentally attract new members.

Fortunately, in spite of the lings and arrows fired at Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, the professionals there will follow the facts which their well-designed tests produce.

Advocacy is not a form of ingratiation with the target audience. It is a skill which incorporates knowledge of the facts, the laws and the practical restraints of the authority being petitioned. Demanding what you want is not the essence of the First Amendment.

elements of advocacy


[1] Some critics and some of the press surrounding of the legislative proposals cynically suggest that the real goal is comfort not safety.


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