Aviation

Transportation Department watchdog to examine airplane cabin evacuation standards

The Department of Transportation's inspector general will conduct an audit of airplane cabin evacuations following a request from two House Democrats.

The Office of the Inspector General wrote in a Monday memo that starting this month it will examine the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) oversight of airplane evacuation standards, with a focus on "how changes in passenger behavior, passenger demographics, and seating capacity, affect the standards" and "whether aircraft as currently configured meet evacuation standards."

The announcement comes in response to a March request from House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Aviation subcommittee.

The two lawmakers had asked Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III to conduct a study evaluating whether simulations mirror the drills previously used by manufacturers to comply with FAA regulations. They also asked if the agency has looked into whether industry changes have affected "passengers' ability to safely evacuate airliners in 90 seconds with half the exits blocked."

"Stakeholders have noted other behavioral shifts as well, such as the propensity to film evacuations on smartphones rather than focusing on actually evacuating," DeFazio and Larsen wrote in their letter to Scovel. "For these reasons, we have concerns about the continuing validity of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assumptions within computer simulations of cabin evacuations."

The probe comes amid a renewed focus on aviation safety after a woman died as a result of injuries sustained on a Southwest Airlines flight, and after a "60 Minutes" report by CBS News in April highlighted low-budget carrier Allegiant Air's mechanical issues.

The inspector general said in May that it would alter an ongoing audit to begin examining the FAA's oversight of airline maintenance on American Airlines and Allegiant Air.

That followed a request from Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who asked the inspector general to begin an audit or probe of FAA's oversight of Allegiant.

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