Tokyo crash raises questions about whether plane evacuation standards are realistic

The crash between a Japan Airlines passenger jet and a Japanese coast guard plane in Tokyo this week is resurfacing questions about standards used to evaluate whether aircraft can be safely evacuated during emergencies.

It took about 18 minutes to evacuate Japan Airlines Flight 516, an Airbus A350-900, the Wall Street Journal reported. That’s despite aircraft certification requirements that the plane could be evacuated within 90 seconds, even with half of its emergency exits blocked, and tests that demonstrated that the plane met that target.

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Although five of the six crew members aboard the coast guard aircraft were killed, all 379 passengers and crew members aboard the JAL flight escaped safely, even as the plane caught fire and smoke filled the cabin. Only a dozen minor injuries were reported — things like bumps, bruises and sprains from the trip down the evacuation slide.

The flight attendants on board have been widely credited with keeping passengers calm and helping ensure an orderly evacuation, while the modern design of the aircraft is seen as having helped to slow the spread of the initial fire, giving passengers time to escape.

Still, the discrepancy between the theoretically achievable 90-second window and the time it took to evacuate in Tokyo has raised old questions about whether that window is even possible, whether certification tests reflect real-world conditions and whether redesigning the test would have unintended consequences.

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Legislation introduced in the U.S. in late 2022 by Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., would require the Federal Aviation Administration to test evacuation times using a more realistic setting.

“Putting 60 people on part of a fuselage of an airplane and pretending that no one has carry-on baggage, and there are no children and senior citizens on board” doesn’t reflect real-world conditions, Duckworth told TPG in a Zoom interview at the time. “I wrote the legislation because I saw that these tests were not being done in a realistic way.”

A modified version of the legislation is included in the pending bill to reauthorize the FAA, which is expected to pass this year.

Duckworth — who sits on the Senate subcommittee for aviation and was a helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army before losing both legs during combat in Iraq — renewed calls to address the evacuation standards this week following the JAL crash.

“What happened in Tokyo this week was a tragedy, but one that could have been much worse—and while we won’t know the full details for some time, I have been warning that something like this could happen in the U.S. for a long time now,” Duckworth said in a statement provided by her office Friday.

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The episode highlights the need to reassess the 90-second rule, Duckworth continued, to “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. That’s the least the flying public deserves.”

When first introducing the legislation, Duckworth noted that should aircraft fail the 90-second test under new standards, airlines would not necessarily have to make changes. Rather, the findings could be that the standard is unrealistic, unhelpful or unnecessary, leading to a change to the standard itself.

“I just want to get the basic data,” Duckworth said.

One effect could be to give pilots, flight attendants and ground rescue crews a new, more realistic real-world standard to train to.

“I think that ultimately it’s going to make everybody safer in the long run,” she said during that 2022 interview. “But to have an arbitrary standard and then to finesse the test so that you meet those standards is not how FAA regulations and safety regulations are supposed to work.”

The cause of the Japan crash is under investigation, along with the response to the crash — including the evacuation.

As the remnants of the A350 smoldered on the runway at Haneda Airport, however, it remained clear that regardless of how long the evacuation took, some confluence of factors prevented a tragedy from being significantly worse.

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