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Advocates fear shrinking airline seats could slow evacuations

Evacuating planes
Passenger safety advocates fear shrinking airlines seats could slow evacuations 02:02

WASHINGTON -- For many, flying coach has become downright uncomfortable, with more passengers squeezed into smaller seats.

It turns out that may also be putting lives at risk in an emergency.

When an American Airlines 767 had an engine catch fire during takeoff in Chicago in 2016, it took more than two minutes to get everyone off. But according to FAA requirements, airline manufacturers have to show they can evacuate a completely full airliner in 90 seconds or less, even with half the exits blocked.

One Delta flight veered off a snowy runway at New York's LaGuardia airport in 2015. The impact damaged the on-board communication system and the evacuation took more than 17 minutes.

Now, there's a new concern: as airlines shrink seats to fit more people on board, passenger safety advocates worry evacuations will take even longer.

The space between rows has shrunk from as much as 35 inches to 31. In some cases, it's down to just 28 inches -- even as passengers themselves are getting bigger.

Paul Hudson is president of Flyers Rights, an advocacy group that sued to force the FAA to regulate seat size and update decades-old safety standards. He told CBS News that the shrinking of seats is "definitely" making the flying public less safe.

Paul Hudson of Flyers Rights CBS News

"The biggest concern is you won't be able to get out in time before you are overcome by smoke or fire," he said. "You won't be able to get into the brace position which means your head will hit the seat in front of you and break your skull."

Over the summer, an appellate court sided with Hudson's group. It found a "plausible life-and-death safety concern" and "ordered the FAA to look at the issue."

The FAA said it is reviewing the judge's ruling. The airlines declined to talk on camera, but said they meet or exceed federal safety requirements. 

Boeing told CBS News it does conduct evacuation tests to certify an aircraft can be evacuated in 90 seconds or less, but those tests are done in a hangar, not in a real-world crash environment.

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