Forget comfort, are these seats, on display by Spirit Airlines at an airline industry conference in Los Angeles last month, too close to be safe? The FAA will test to see if U.S. airlines meet evacuation time requirements

Many Americans will likely be rooting for 720 volunteers to fail, miserably, when they participate in a series of FAA tests next month to see if today’s larger, wider and taller passengers can safely evacuate an airplane in less than 90 seconds.

But if those volunteers do fail it could become for the rest of us the best illustration ever of the old warning to be careful for what you wish – you just might get it.

Upon orders contained in legislation passed last year by Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration in November will conduct 12 days of aircraft emergency evacuation tests. Last year, when Congress was considering the bill to reauthorize the FAA and its administration of safe air operations in this country not nearly enough votes could be mustered to support various proposals reintroduce elements of economic regulation back into the world of air travel. But so incensed were our federal lawmakers by U.S. airlines’ maniacal stuffing of more and more seats – each of them seemingly designed by medieval torture machine makers – into their planes that a large majority in both houses eagerly voted to order the FAA to conduct a new round of evacuation tests.

To overcome the strong, deeply held beliefs of many in Congress who philosophically oppose economic regulation of markets in general, the airplane evacuation testing was couched in terms of safety. And, on a personal note, I get that. I, too, am staunchly opposed to economic regulation of markets. But as a long-time VBG (Very Big Guy), I hate what airlines have done in the past three years to what used to be their tight-but- tolerable coach seating sections. (Don’t you just hate it when your high-minded philosophical positions are opposed by your own self-interest?)

To be sure, Congress is notorious for using clever wording to get around uncomfortable contradictions of previously staked-out positions or existing limitations on their authority. But in this case, using safety as an excuse to apply pressure on airlines concerning their pushing of unspoken boundaries of commercial propriety isn’t pretext. It’s a legit concern.

In fact, aircraft evacuation times long have been an area ripe for re-testing. There are old stories going back to at least the dawn of the jet age in commercial aviation about how aircraft manufacturers and airlines conspired to establish favorably lax evacuation regulations and then to cut big corners in making sure their planes could meat even those weak standards.

The rules require that commercial planes with more than 44 seats can be completely evacuated (by passengers AND crew) in less than 90 seconds and that, for all practical purposes, that that can be achieved with only 50% of the plane’s escape doors available for use. Sounds tough. But in the days when a Boeing 707 was equipped with only 140 seats and six doors, the 90-second/50% evacuation performance standard wasn’t very hard to achieve.

But, as airlines began demanding larger planes to accommodate growing demand, and as manufacturers found ways to stretch their planes without adding lots more doors or escape hatches (a process that would have added significant redesign and re-tooling costs, plus greatly increased their structural engineering challenges and manufacturing costs) the ratio of seats-to-doors grew to dangerous levels.

By the early 1970s, at least according to industry folklore and a couple of lawsuits that went nowhere, manufacturers and airlines were conducting evacuation tests using only very young employees and older workers’ college-age children, typically dressed in athletic clothing, in those tests. And even then they would spend hours on a Saturday running through multiple “practice” evacuations before conducting a real, for-the-record test with FAA inspectors present.

None of that, however, came close to representing the extreme seating density found in the coach sections of most of today’s aircraft flown by U.S. airlines. Pitch – technically the distance between a spot on one seat and the same spot on the seat ahead of or behind it – has shrunk from an industry standard of about 34 inches 20 years ago to 31 inches, or even less in many cases, today. On top of that, airlines are shifting rapidly to very thin seats, which they maintain are so well engineered and built that they’re more comfortable than the thick seats they’re replacing (a claim with which many, many travelers strongly disagree).

The result is that a Boeing 737-700 introduced by Southwest Airlines with an all-coach configuration of 137 seats now has 143 seats on it. An American 737-800 that did carry 160 coach seats now has 172 – two more whole rows of seats in the same amount of floor space. United and Delta are doing very similar things on their planes. And those big carriers are doing it primarily so they can keep at least a portion of their seats priced competitively with hybrid and discount carriers like JetBlue, Spirit and Frontier, where seating density always has been tight and has gotten even tighter in the last few years.

Compounding the situation is the expanding proportions of Americans in general. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention tells us that the average American man was 197.8 pounds in 2016, up 10 pounds since 1999. For women the average is up seven pounds in that same span, to 170.5 pounds. We’re also a smidge taller, on average, than we used to be, meaning that our need for leg room is growing even as the amount of leg room available to us is being pinched. And we typically have slightly larger frames than we did even just 20 years ago, meaning we’re wider across the shoulders, the hips and at the elbows – all the points that create polite (or not-so-polite) conflict with our seatmates.

All that combined brings the ability of passengers to escape a plane in 90 seconds or less very much into question. In fact, that was in question when we were all smaller, so of course it’s an issue now. And on top of all that, we have an older population, meaning lots more geriatrics are flying and that their reduced mobility issues, whether it’s the need for wheel chair assistance, canes or just a slower gait, have to be accounted for. So do the needs of passengers with permanent or temporary physical challenges that reduce their mobility. Far more such passengers travel by air these days than ever was envisioned way back when the 90 second/50% evacuation standard was first set.

So, the idea of airlines and airplane makers having their planes fail the FAA’s up-coming evacuation tests at its testing and training facility in Oklahoma City is not so far-fetched. In fact, if the bookmakers in Las Vegas were taking bets on it, my guess is that most of the money would be riding on “fail.”

But what happens if a plane type, or even multiple plane types fail the evacuation tests? Certainly, the lawyers would get involved and things would get complicated and take a while to work out. But failure, according to the FAA’s rulebook, would require the removal of that plane type’s FAA certification until the seating density could be reduced to a level that would allow it to pass evacuation tests. The short term result would be lots of flight cancellations while airlines rush to remodel those planes’ interiors.

Longer term, the results would be more painful for consumers. With fewer seats on board the only way airlines could keep their revenue – and their profits – from dropping would be to raise fare prices (and perhaps their various service fees). Competition likely wouldn’t prevent them from raising those prices because one assumes that all carriers operating the same models of planes would be similarly affected. Thus, a low price pace setter like Spirit would have to raise its fares and fees if it had to remove seats from its planes, meaning conventional carriers like American, Delta and United would gain a bit of breathing room to raise the prices of their cheapest fares (which are available only so they can remain at least a little price competitive with low-ballers like Spirit).

It also possibly could mean even more flights operated in the very uncomfortable range north of 85% load factors. Removing seats would reduce product inventory. And though raising prices likely would reduce demand, it’s likely that at least during peak travel demand hours demand would not fall as much as supply. That would translate into planes that all this past summer flew with more than 85% of their seats filled would see that average pushed even higher. And remember, when the average load factor is 85% you can be sure that peak hour flights are 100% full because airlines still have to operate early morning, late night and slow-day flights when they’re lucky to fill 50% of their seats. Thus failure of evacuation tests is likely to mean both higher prices and even more crowded planes.

So, you – we – potentially could feel pain in the wallet at the same time we gain a modest bit of additional leg room, offset by even more full airplanes. And that would put us consumers in an awkward position.

Do we really care that much about our leg (and hip, should, elbow) room, and about our theoretical level of safety and our ability to get out of the plane quickly if need be? Or, deep down, do most of us care a lot more about the dollars we spend – or don’t spend – on air travel than we care about our comfort and safety when flying?

I’m a cynic, if not by nature then by my years of journalism training and practice. So, I’m guessing that most of us ultimately care about our money more than our personal space on airplanes, and even more than our safety, especially since the odds of our ever needing to evacuate a plane in an emergency are something like one-in-a-bazillion. And if I’m right, that means the volume and tenor of the complaints about prices would be much greater than the fairly high volume and angry tenor of consumers’ complaints today about leg room and comfort, or the lack thereof.

Am I saying that, ultimately, this all our fault as travelers? No. Well, maybe a little, because no matter the circumstance we American travelers do seem to enjoy lodging our little complaints. They’re always good for some laughs and joking commiseration at parties and around the water cooler. Plus, we’ve proven it over and again that we’re suckers for a low fare, no matter what level of degradation comes with it

But the real fault lies with the airlines themselves. Since 2014 the industry has experienced unprecedented financial success after eight decades of losing more money, net, than they ever made. But they handled such success poorly; not knowing when to stop pushing their luck. In the name of competition, they pushed the standards of service quality ever lower to rake in every extra dollar they could get their hands on. They assumed – and perhaps were even confident – that doing the opposite, providing more and higher quality service would not generate nearly as much additional revenue and profit.

Now they are paying the price for that attitude in the form of the high levels of disgust, even enmity, their own customers express toward them and in the form of Congressional interference in their business. And even if the airlines end up giving give us, their customers, what we say we want, more comfort and space, we’re still going to hate them because, well, they’ve taught us to hate them.

‘Tis a pity. It was all so avoidable, if only the airlines had chosen to compete by providing a reasonable level of quality service at reasonably affordable prices rather than rock bottom prices and a level of service quality that’s now even lower.

Via Forbes