Even before nearly 400 people escaped from those circumstances aboard Japan Airlines flight 516 on Tuesday and fled down inflatable slides to safety, pressure was brewing in Washington for new scrutiny into airplane evacuations.
The fatal accident saw the plane crash into a Japanese Coast Guard aircraft after touching down on the runway at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport Tuesday, causing it to erupt into a terrifying fireball.
The question isn’t only whether Americans could rapidly escape the cramped, dark, smoky, and chaotic cabin of a passenger jet when their lives depend on, but whether shrunken seat sizes and new cabin hazards get in the way of safely evacuating, as the 379 people aboard the flight did Tuesday evening.
Those on board included 12 crew members and eight young children, all of whom survived and evacuated before the plane burned completely. The runway collision killed five people aboard the Japanese Coast Guard aircraft, which was responding to the country’s earthquake.
“I think if that happened in the United States, it would have been a very different scenario because of our attachment to our carry-on bags, our laptops, our phones, our things that we want to take with us,” said CNN aviation analyst and former FAA official David Soucie. “I worry sometimes that might interfere with the ability to get everybody evacuated.”
It is unclear exactly how long it took to evacuate the flaming airliner. The aircraft’s captain was the last person to leave the aircraft 18 minutes after the plane touched down, Japanese news outlet NHK reported. That’s far longer than the 90 seconds the FAA uses as a benchmark. And it is not certain how long the captain may have remained on board to complete emergency procedures after the last passengers evacuated.
An international investigation into the crash is underway, and preliminary information suggests the coast guard plane improperly entered the runway where the massive Airbus widebody jet was cleared to land.
Evacuation took roughly 5 minutes, passenger said
After a loud bang, the airplane came to rest, and crew members determined which of the plane’s emergency exits were safe to use. One young passenger was heard politely asking flight attendants to let passengers off quickly. One told reporters “mostly people were calm,” waiting at their seats for the doors to be opened. Another said the evacuation took about five minutes and, “I didn’t see passengers panicking.”
“Ultimately, these passengers saved themselves by getting up in a relatively orderly way not trying to get their carry-on bag and sliding down those slides and they’re all alive today as a result,” said CNN aviation analyst Miles O’Brien.
Asked about any work in response to the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration told CNN it generally monitors foreign investigations “for potential lessons learned.”
FAA standards require the airplane cabin to be capable of evacuation in 90 seconds with half of the exits unavailable – no small feat in the chaos after a catastrophe. Federal rules say new aircraft models and configurations must undergo evacuation tests requiring a “representative passenger load of persons in normal health,” including a certain number of women, people over 50, and dolls simulating children under two years old.
In 2018, Congress ordered the FAA to go further and assess whether “any relevant changes to passenger demographics,” as well as seat sizes, legroom space, and aisle width, were problematic for evacuating passenger planes.
The FAA in 2022 came out with its report: “Currently flying seat pitches using seats of similar size or smaller than those used in this project can accommodate and not impede egress for 99% of the American population.”
But the report revealed the agency’s latest tests looked nothing like today’s aircraft cabins. Only 60 occupants – rather than more than 100 who typically file into a narrow-body jet – and no children, seniors, nor travelers requiring a service animal or wheelchair. When the agency asked for public feedback on the issue, it received 26,000 comments.
Calls grow for new testing
Illinois US Senator Tammy Duckworth said she thought Americans would be shocked to learn the tests looked nothing like real life. Versions of her proposed legislation to require new tests and a seat size standard is currently stuck in a congressional stalemate over other aviation policy issues.
Duckworth told CNN in a statement the Japan Airlines incident showed why the FAA should “finally establish an emergency evacuation standard that takes real-life conditions into account—such as the presence of carry-on bags, children, seniors and passengers with disabilities—so we can make flying as safe as possible.”
The FAA told CNN the report “includes the results of numerous simulated emergency evacuations and recommendations.”
Soucie, the former FAA inspector and investigator, said the FAA conducts rigorous evacuation tests – so realistic some volunteer participants have been injured. But nothing, he said, compares to the value of studying real-world evacuations – a rarity now in this safest-ever era for air travel.
“It’s incredibly useful,” he said of the information that will be gathered from this new investigation. Investigators will inspect what happened in Japan to determine whether it proves or disproves “that the assumptions that we made about evacuations were true.”
While the investigations are ongoing, there is widespread respect in the aviation world for the response of the cabin crew.
“We have all kinds of other duties that we’re assigned and that we’re certified for,” said Sara Nelson, president of the US-based Association of Flight Attendants labor union. She added, “the number of flight attendants are directly related to the evacuation certification of the aircraft. This is the fundamental reason that we’re on board.”
Nelson, too, has concerns the aircraft evacuation standards have not changed enough in the last seven decades, and many passengers do not pay attention to lifesaving information in the preflight emergency briefing.
“When you ride a plane, they show us the video about emergency escape,” Flight 516 passenger Aruto Iwama told reporters after escaping. “Now I indeed think that we should watch those videos carefully and keep that information in our head.”