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The FAA Says Planes Must be Evacuated in 90 Seconds. But We Haven’t Tested It in Our Real World

Even though nearly everything about flying has changed since the rules were set, the FAA has blocked evacuation testing that reflects actual conditions.

This year of aviation started ominously on January 2 with the fiery runway collision between Japan Airlines Flight 516 and a military aircraft in Tokyo. Five died on the Coast Guard plane, but thankfully all 379 occupants on JAL survived.

But there was this disturbing detail: The evacuation of that burning Airbus A350 took 18 minutes!

Since 1967, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standard to evacuate commercial aircraft here in the United States has been 90 seconds. The JAL event in Japan exceeded this by 16.5 extra minutes, which despite the successful execution is simply unacceptable.

Many American experts are worried the FAA’s “90-second rule” is now unrealistic due to a combination of troubling trends.


How airplane safety is determined

Paul Hudson has been a member of two key FAA advisory and rulemaking committees as president of FlyersRights. I have worked alongside him on dozens of airline consumer and safety campaigns over the years. He sums up what has happened: 


“The FAA has a decades-long history of watering down and refusing to update emergency evacuation standards. This is in order to certify new plane designs that otherwise would not pass longstanding regulations. At the behest of plane makers, the FAA in the 1990s watered down its longstanding 90-second rule. It requires all occupants in a fully loaded airliner be able to exit with half the exits disabled in low light conditions. The reason for the rule is that while most crash-landing occupants actually survive the impact, fatalities come from smoke, fire, or drowning when passengers and crew cannot exit quickly.”


He explains that manufacturers such as Boeing now use analysis instead of actual testing. They can also use “non-naïve” test subjects who do not represent the general public. Analysis subjects exclude anyone under 18, over 60, people with disabilities, and people larger than a certain body size. 


Airplane manufacturers are also permitted to employ obsolete test data and seating. Hudson adds: “The FAA and plane makers don’t disclose testing details as ‘trade secrets’ or ‘proprietary information’ so outside experts cannot review test results.”


In many cases, computer modeling has replaced evacuation testing. It’s understandable that actual testing could present risks for volunteers, but the much greater risk is not thoroughly evaluating manufacturer and airline standards with practical situations.

The Office of Inspector General at the Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, concurs. A scathing report in 2020 found “FAA’s process for updating its evacuation standards lacks data collection and analysis on current risks.” 

The OIG concluded: “FAA is inhibiting its ability to identify current evacuation risks and updates to its aircraft emergency evacuation standards.”

Cabins have changed

The worst part about abandoning the strict testing conducted in the past is that anyone over 25 knows airline cabins have been transformed in the last two decades. And nearly all these changes pose threats to safe evacuations.

Cabins are fuller now than any time since the Korean War, with average passenger loads continually climbing.

• Thanks to checked bag fees, there are more carry-ons filling airline cabins than ever before. There are also new electronic distractions and enough charging cords and wires to hamper movement.

               Credit: posmguys / Shutterstock

Where are the revised safety tests?

In March 2022, the FAA submitted a 30-page report to Congress on simulated emergency evacuations conducted under the Trump Administration in 2019-2020 by the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI). It was a tremendous setback. CAMI dismissed most concerns and basically said, “All’s fine…nothing to see here, folks.”


The next day, the CAMI study was publicly criticized by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), whom I believe is the most knowledgeable and outspoken Member of Congress on airline evacuation issues. Cohen said: “I am disappointed but not surprised that the flawed study came to the foregone conclusion the airline industry dictated.”


In January 2024, Cohen, now Ranking Member of the House Aviation Subcommittee, wrote to FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker and asked that U.S. aircraft evacuation standards be reevaluated in the wake of that JAL crash in Tokyo. 


Last year, Cohen also joined Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in introducing the Seat Egress in Air Travel Act, which called for a moratorium on tight airline seating.


On behalf of American Economic Liberties Project, I endorsed the SEAT Act in its press release by noting: “Tight airline seats are much more than a discomfort and a financial rip-off. They’re a health threat due to deep vein thrombosis. And they’re a safety threat during a life-and-death emergency evacuation.”


Others in Congress are also acting on evacuation standards.

In February, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) successfully included their Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin (EVAC) Act in the pending Senate version of the FAA Reauthorization Act. Duckworth herself is disabled due to her U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter being shot down in Iraq in 2004, and she has spoken out on behalf of protecting all passengers.

Let’s close the testing gaps


But loopholes remain. And the time to close them has long passed. The risks have grown far too high.

William J. McGee is the Senior Fellow for Aviation & Travel at American Economic Liberties Project. An FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher, he spent seven years in airline flight operations management and was Editor-in-Chief of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. He is the author of Attention All Passengers and teaches at Vaughn College of Aeronautics. There is more at