Real Knowledge, not passenger “expert” intuition, about the Best Way Out of an Airplane during an Emergency

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The Wall Street Journal, while being known as a booster of business, is not always a friend of aviation. Scott McCartney’s article about the relevant factors in analyzing the safety of higher density seating and emergency exits is a fine example of fair and balanced reporting or “all of the news that is fit to print.”

Aviation safety professionals, actually all airlines, get a lot of “expert” advice—conversing during dinner parties, talking at a swimming race or any of a whole host of social interactions after the “expert” learns about your job. It is truly remarkable how passengers can extrapolate from their flight times to absolute opinions on how he/she will bear less risk while in a plane. Sometimes these recommendations are useful, but the recent flurry of such commentary, given total credibility by journalists, about the dangers of airlines lower seat pitch is a prime example of how such “knowledge” has caused various people in power to urge action.

What are the facts reported in this article?

The initial premise of his piece is that “some in Congress have asked if the squeeze of air travel seating is a danger.” He then mentions that the FAA “plans to request funding from Congress to study seating density, likely in the next three years.”Cynthia McLean, the FAA’s principal cabin safety investigator at the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, says, “This is something we have to kind of step back and see what the effect is. There might be an effect. We don’t know.”

Scientific research will answer the Congressional question within 3 years. The hard evidence of the CAMI work may or may not justify a change in the FAA’s aircraft certification and operational standards. In the meantime, here are the insights of two safety professionals who really know the best way out.

McCartney gets to more of the facts through his research. He learns that:

 Prior research of cabin configurations have determined that “the ideal is just enough space to accommodate a single-file line of passengers.”

  • If the aisle is too spacious, the passengers tend to cram the space, but
  • if the aisle is too small, jams occur.
  • A space which leads to a single file is optimal.

“Seat pitch minimums are regulated for exit rows, but not for other parts of the airplane.”

 Smaller space between the rows of seat (non-exit) is not a concern because the critical logjam points have been shown to be in the aisles during evacuations.

McLean summarized this finding — “The speed out of the row itself really does not have a significant affect.”

“Ms. McLean says research has shown that the most important factor in surviving a crash landing is a person’s agility. Age, gender and weight have shown to be significant.”

A few minutes studying how to open emergency exits is recommended as well.k44

→ Clothing can matter: long pants, long-sleeved shirts and lace-up shoes are best.

Retrieving luggage slows up exiting from the airplane and possibly delays others behind you.LUGGAGE PSA

“Ms. McLean recommends traveling with a fanny pack that has your phone, ID, medication and other important items so you can run with empty hands.”

“And once you get to the aisle, don’t crawl on the floor. Instead, hunch over and grab arm rests as you move down an aisle.

“Keep your head down below the smoke where you can see floor markings.”


“Having the seat in front of you closer may actually reduce injuries in an emergency landing. In the brace position, you want your head pressing against the seat in front of you, she says. Roomier rows have more room for your head to bang into something.”

Another academic, who has studied both actual evacuations and modeling of this emergency (he is the designer of the accepted computer simulation), Professor Edward Galea, professor at London’s University of Greenwich, added the following analytical facts:

  • “The tests are not challenging.”
  • “With tighter seating conditions, Dr. Galea says casual study indicates that less maneuvering space in regular rows may not matter in an evacuation anyway.”
  • “He recently used his model to see if the airline squeeze trend should be studied further. He found no change in survivability.”
  • “Simply reducing the space in the seat row does not have a negative impact.”
  • “Dr. Galea notes that if there are more people on the plane, it will take longer to evacuate.”
  • “Bunching up passengers at one end of airplane can make evacuations more complex as well.”
  • “Roomy first-class and business-class cabins have fewer passengers per exit than rear of the plane where dense seating may leave more passengers vying for each door.”
  • “Some airlines train cabin crew to push people to bypass the nearest exits and go up front for quicker escape.”
  • Never sit in a window or a middle seat.”
  • Sit within seven rows of a viable exit improves your chances of quick escape.”

You might want to convert these recommendations into your personal safety reminder card to take with you on your next flights. Following the advice of these true experts will increase the likelihood that you will survive a crash.

Thank you Wall Street Journal Scott McCartney, and Cynthia McLean and Professor Edward Galea.


ARTICLE: Regulators Examine Tight Airline Seating in an Evacuation: A squeeze on seat space is less likely to delay an airplane evacuation than crowding in the aisles

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