FAA changes rules to reflect heavier passengers, luggage
LESLIE MILLER, Associated Press Writer Monday, May 12, 2003
(05-12) 23:02 PDT WASHINGTON (AP) --
Not only have Americans gotten heavier, but so have the bags they carry onto planes.
The government acknowledged both of those trends on Monday when it raised its 8-year-old estimates of how much passengers and their luggage weigh. The new standard was prompted a crash last winter that killed all 21 people aboard a commuter plane in Charlotte, N.C.
The Federal Aviation Administration is adding up to 10 pounds to its estimate for passengers and 5 pounds to luggage. The weights are used to gauge whether a plane is overloaded.
The new weight standards are temporary until a committee to be appointed by the FAA conducts a broad, in-depth survey of passengers' weights, which will form the basis for a permanent standard, FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said.
Instead of weighing all passengers and their bags, airlines generally use official government estimates to determine whether a plane is too heavy to fly safely.
The FAA's new estimate is that passengers weigh 190 pounds, including clothing and carryons. The old standard was 180 pounds for summertime travelers and 185 for winter.
Children 2 to 12 will continue to be estimated at 80 pounds. Checked bags now will be estimated to weigh 30 pounds rather than 25.
Spitaliere said U.S. air carriers have 90 days to implement the changes. Airlines will have the option of using their own estimates if they survey their passengers' weight within that time.
Weight is important for all planes, but critically so for smaller aircraft. Too many bags or a few heavy people in the back could change the plane's center of gravity and make it harder to fly.
Regional airlines support the FAA's plan, saying a much broader survey is needed than one conducted soon after the Charlotte crash.
Still, there is concern that permanently raising weight estimates could force airlines to eliminate seats to comply.
Debby McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association, said safety was the top priority. "If the data shows that this is necessary in order to ensure the safety of the passengers and employees, we're going to make those changes."
US Airways Express Flight 5481, which crashed Jan. 8, was judged to be within 100 pounds of its maximum takeoff weight. The 19-seat Beech 1900 turboprop plunged to earth shortly after takeoff at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. Weight and mechanical problems are under investigation as possibly contributing to the accident.
After the crash, the FAA ordered 15 regional airlines to check passenger weights. The survey showed that the average passenger weight was higher than the estimates by 20.63 pounds, carryon bags were higher by 5.72 pounds and domestic checked bags by 3.81 pounds, the FAA's Spitaliere said.
Some regional airlines quickly changed their weight estimates, she said. Air Midwest, for example, now estimates passengers at 200 pounds and checked bags at 30 pounds.
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said those figures show that the FAA weight estimates are still too low.
"Something's wrong with the FAA's math," he said. "This new estimate is almost 50 percent off what their surveys show."
The FAA's announcement followed the release Monday of tapes of conversations between the cockpit and controllers just before the US Airways Express plane crashed 37 seconds into its flight to Greer, S.C.
Capt. Katie Leslie declared an emergency just before the plane plunged to earth, but never described the problem.
The National Transportation Safety Board also is looking at possible mechanical problems.
In a preliminary report, the NTSB said tension controls for the elevators -- the tail flaps that move up and down and cause the plane to climb or dive -- were set improperly. One cable was nearly 2 inches shorter than the other. Slack cables lessen pilot control over the elevators.
The NTSB will hold hearings into the cause of the crash beginning May 20.
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