New Cabin Exit Designs Risk Leaving Passengers Unsure During an Emergency

Each day new aircraft from both Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier (sometimes Bombardier via Airbus) and Embraer enter the world of commercial airline service — bringing with them new levels of efficiency, an increased number of capabilities, and general differences/upgrades compared with previous models — all designed to either benefit the airline, the passenger, or sometimes both.

While much of the updated technology or changes to new aircraft will go unnoticed by passengers, brand new cabin designs are slowly but significantly changing the way in which a passenger would have to evacuate a single-aisle jetliner during an emergency. But are passengers being properly informed the new procedures?

I started thinking about this while working with an airline customer of Airbus for the delivery of multiple Airbus A321neo jets. The A321neo program has 2,686 jets on order, and there are already around 200 A321neo aircraft flying in commercial service today. A321neo operators include British Airways, EasyJet, La Compagnie, Turkish Airlines and Philippine Airlines.

Nearly all of the A321neos delivered today have the -— now-standard for the A321neo family — ‘Airbus Cabin Flex’ (ACF) configuration. The new flexible configuration is the largest shake-up of the distribution, type and location of emergency exit doors in recent Airbus history.

Here’s what the ordinary exit-door configuration is on a classic A321 — of which there are over 1,700 in commercial service:

A321ceo
A321ceo (classic)

Four doors, with a slide attached to each in the event of an emergency.

Below, is the exit-door configuration for A321neo jets:

A321neo
A321neo (new)

Airbus have increased the evacuation limit of door 1 and door 4 — meaning the regulator has certified that more passengers will be able to make their way to these exits than the previous certification. It’s worth highlighting at this point that the certification process doesn’t involve many physical tests with passengers, and a lot is based on available data.  Furthermore, Airbus has removed door 2 and introduced two larger overwing exits. This means airlines have extra space for seats ahead of the wing.

While I have complete trust in our aviation regulators, such as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) — my concerns with the new configuration are in relation to the complications that are beginning to arise amid the introduction of more A321neo jets.

Example: British Airways A321neo

This week, I flew two 5-hour flights onboard British Airways’ brand new A321neo. The aircraft features the new ACF cabin exit-door configuration, and it’s extremely likely that it’s the first time nearly all passengers on my flights would have ever flown on a jet with this layout.

BAsafetycard
British Airways A321neo onboard safety card

For passengers seated at the new overwing exits (marked ‘C’ on BA’s safety card) in Row 16, the crew asked exit-row passengers the standard question prior to taking off: “Would you be willing to open the door during an emergency?”— a regulatory requirement. All passengers agreed that they were willing to take up that role during an emergency, and this concluded the exit-row safety briefing.

In the unlikely event of an emergency, the passenger seated closest to the exit would have to open the door, throw it out, and then jump down the slide. This itself is a widely known practice, and evacuations have proven successful following this procedure.

Crucially, passengers that were seated at the other exit row, located behind the wing (marked B on the safety card) received the exact same briefing despite a fundamental difference.

If you study the safety card carefully enough on BA’s A321neo, you’ll (hopefully) notice that these exits are not like any other on the aircraft.

A321exitcomparison.jpg

Door 3 (marked on the safety card) has no evacuation slide in the event of a water landing, and passengers evacuating the aircraft via these set of doors must instead jump into the water (with lifejackets on) in the unlikely event of an emergency.

Passengers seated in this row are not informed of the lack of the evacuation slide in a water landing scenario, which could lead to delays during an emergency evacuation where every second counts. In the heart of an emergency, an exit-row passenger could easily be left unsure of what to do if they were expecting a slide to deploy. It’s here I think the industry expects too much from passengers in terms of onboard safety knowledge.

British Airways do not operate the aircraft in its highest seating capacity form, with 220 seats on board — but at the very least, passengers deserve to know the dynamics of the exit they are seated at and will be responsible for during an emergency.

Final Thought

Several airlines operate both the A321ceo and A321neo together, including British Airways and Philippine Airlines. Going forward, I think passengers would be better equipped with the knowledge required to act responsibly during an emergency if there was specific emphasis on A321neo flights, such as announcements or conversations that highlighted: this is a brand new A321neo, and the exits are in different locations compared with any other single-aisle Airbus jet, even the other A321 jets. 

For British Airways, passengers seated at Doors 3 should be informed that there is no evacuation slide during certain emergency scenarios, at the very least.

In addition to this, all airlines could refresh their exit-row policies to fit new aircraft by highlighting to passengers the weight of the overwing exit (I’ve trained on the A320, it’s heavier than you think), and also ensuring those seated at exit rows better understand their duties.

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