WASHINGTON — Federal Aviation Administrator Donald D. Engen said Thursday that his agency plans to propose new safety rules that will prevent the Boeing Co. from reducing the number of overwing passenger exits on its 747 airplanes.
In a letter to the head of the Boeing Commercial Airplane Co. released by the FAA, Engen said he is concerned that the aircraft manufacturer's efforts to reduce the number of overwing exits from 10 to eight doors "may result in an unacceptable distance between exits."
The FAA plans to draw up regulations to limit the maximum distance between exits to 60 feet and to restrict the maximum distance between a passenger seat and the nearest exit to 30 feet. Removing two Boeing 747 overwing exits would leave a 72-foot distance between exits.
Concerned About Distance
"Now that many of the passenger safety issues are becoming crystallized, one stands out clearly and demands action on the part of the FAA," Engen said. "That is the issue of exit distance."
"I now firmly believe that both seat-to-exit distance and exit-to-exit distance can affect evacuation potential," he added.
The FAA's regional office in Seattle earlier had given Boeing its permission to remove the doors. But Engen opposed the idea after he became chief of the FAA, joining objections by the National Transportation Safety Board, the Air Line Pilots Assn. and the Assn. of Flight Attendants.
A year ago, Engen asked U.S. airlines operating 747s not to remove any exits because of their importance during emergencies. While U.S. carriers have followed Engen's advice, several foreign carriers, including British Airways, have removed some 747 overwing doors.
Wants New Regulations
In his May 14 letter to Boeing, Engen said he is convinced that the distance between the exits could affect the time it takes for passengers to escape an airplane, especially if the exits are blocked at one end of the plane, "as has been the case in a number of accidents involving Boeing (and other) airplanes."
"The time has come," Engen said, "to propose to establish regulatory limits on exit distance."
Engen's letter was welcome news to the Assn. of Flight Attendants, which initiated the protest against removal of the doors.
"It's extremely good news for crew members and passengers," said Matthew Finucane, director of safety for the association. "The removal of these exits could have become a trend and passengers would have ended up in a situtation where the nearest exit wasn't very near at all."