U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN) have introduced the Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin (EVAC) Act, which would require the FAA to establish updated aircraft evacuation standards that take into account a 21st century understanding of the airplane environment.

Emergency exit door and seating row on airplane.

FAA regulations have long required that, in the event of an emergency, passengers be able to evacuate an aircraft within 90 seconds. The tests conducted to certify aircraft, including more recent simulations in 2019 and 2021, have been suspect — all test subjects were nondisabled and under age 60.

EVAC Act would reshape safety certifications

The EVAC Act would require the FAA to consider the following in future safety certifications:

  • Passengers of different ages, including young children and senior citizens
  • Passengers of different heights and weights
  • Passengers with disabilities
  • Passengers who do not speak English
  • Passengers who cannot speak, are non-vocal or non-verbal
  • Presence of carry-on luggage and personal items like purses, backpacks andbriefcases
  • Seat size and pitch
  • Seat configuration, location, and other obstacles in pathway to exit

Simulations that better reflect the modern aircraft cabin and an expanded cohort of passengers (to include disabled people) may reveal significant safety concerns that aren’t revealed in outdated best-case-scenario trials.

“I have long held doubts that the 90-second evacuation standard can be met in most instances, which is why I previously introduced and passed the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act to require the FAA to establish minimum standards for seat sizes and distances between rows of seats in order to ensure passengers can safely evacuate,” said Congressman Cohen. “The EVAC Act will ensure the FAA’s emergency evacuation standards address the needs of all members of the flying public, including those with disabilities.”

John Morris seated on an aircraft.

“Imagine being on a crowded flight when the worst-case scenario happens: the crew tells you that you have 90 seconds to evacuate—but how can more than 150 passengers sandwiched into crowded rows actually safely evacuate in less time than it takes to brush your teeth?” said Senator Duckworth. “The flying public deserves better. That’s why Senator Baldwin and I are introducing the Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabins (EVAC) Act to require the FAA to finally establish evacuation standards that consider not just seat size, pitch and configuration, but other real-life conditions like the presence of carry-on bags and passengers of different heights, weights, ages and abilities. We must act to make flying as safe as we know it can be—and as safe as Americans deserve.”

Safely evacuating disabled passengers from commercial airplanes

In 2016, I inquired about the plan for evacuating immobile airline passengers in an emergency and discovered a disturbing lack of planning and preparation on the part of airlines. While some flight attendants responded with a commitment to “make sure the disabled passengers on my flight are safely evacuated,” a lack of training and resources, together with higher density seating configurations, left me with little confidence in a safe outcome.

Product design and specifications for ADAPTS.
Product design and specifications for ADAPTS.

While researching that 2016 article, I reached out to Robin Wearley, a friend who happens to be a retired flight attendant. She shared my concern for the safety and wellbeing of disabled flyers (myself included!) and that concern spawned an idea for a transfer sling to aid in the safe and efficient evacuation of disabled people. ADAPTS, a disabled passenger transfer sling, was born — it’s already been used to safely evacuate one disabled passenger during an Air Canada emergency.

Although airlines have declined to invest in a means to evacuate disabled travelers, ADAPTS can serve as your own safety net — it’s packed in my carry-on bag every time I fly, just in case the need arises.

ADAPTS Team & supporters at the Abilities Expo in San Mateo, California.
ADAPTS team & supporters at the Abilities Expo in San Mateo, California.

To learn more about this life-saving sling and some unique ways people are using it in both emergency and non-emergency situations, visit the ADAPTS website — If you’d like to buy one, take 15% off using the discount code WCT15 — it’s a limited-time promotion and the largest discount offered anywhere!

I’ll continue tracking the EVAC Act as it is discussed and debated in congressional committees, updating this article as new details emerge. To keep up with the latest accessible travel news, be sure to subscribe for the Wheelchair Travel Newsletter!

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