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

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OKLAHOMA CITY – A new FAA study is looking at how airplane seat sizes could affect safety.

Seven-hundred and twenty participants will take part in the study, which will look at seat width and pitch. Seat pitch is the distance from one seatback to the back of the seat in front of it.

The study will factor in population demographics, specifically people of different sizes.

“This is the first in which we’re going to look specifically at seat pitch. We have looked at egress times with other varying conditions in the past,” said Stacey Zinke-McKee, branch manager of the Protection and Survival Research Lab at the FAA.

The study is being done because of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018.

Because it’s the first study of its kind, it’s entirely possible there may be no relation between seat size and evacuation time.

“A test like this with just these parameters has never been done before. That’s why we’re really excited to see the outcome of it,” said Richard DeWeese, supervisor of the Aeromedical Engineering Sciences Section at the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute.

The study will not look at children or disabled passengers, or the “90-second rule,” which experts say is a misconception. There is no regulation that says an airplane has to be evacuated in 90 seconds.

“What we’re trying to do is limit the parameters we’re studying, so the data shows us clearly whether the seat pitch and width is affecting the problem. We don’t want to muddy the waters with all these other parameters. It’s just not good science,” DeWeese said.

Will the results of this study allow airlines to make their seats even smaller? The FAA says it’s not up to them to decide how the data is used.

“[The rulemaking committee] will be taking our data, our people will be used as subject matter experts to be able to interpret the data that we have for that committee’s use, and they will be making larger decisions with any changes that are necessary,” Zinke-McKee said.

A final report is expected to be released next summer.

The study will be done over 12 days in November and December. The FAA says they will have information later about getting participants signed up.

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