Aerospace Notebook: FAA turns down Airbus
request to omit some exits
Seattle Post-Intelligencer 02/26/01
author: James Wallace
Executives with Boeing Commercial Airplanes would never say so
publicly, but they are probably smiling at a recent decision by the Federal
Aviation Administration that went against rival Airbus Industrie.
Call it a little payback for past rulings by the European Joint Aviation
Authorities ( the JAA is Europe's equivalent of the FAA) that went against
Boeing regarding emergency exits on its jetliners.
In a decision that received little attention, the FAA has turned down a
request from Airbus for an exemption to a rule that requires adjacent
emergency exits be no more than 60 feet apart.
It's a rule that came about after Boeing, at the request of some of its
customers, removed overwing exits on 747s back in the 1980s and was
stopped by the JAA after the FAA initially approved.
Airbus had sought the exemption to the 60-foot rule for its new
380-passenger A340-600, which is scheduled to enter service next year.
At 246.4 feet in length, the A340-600 will be the world's longest
commercial jetliner, taking the title by a mere four feet from Boeing's
777-300 that has been flying passengers since May 1998. Airbus sees the
A340-600 as a competitor to the 416-passenger 747.
Airbus wanted to increase the distance between adjacent doors on the
A340-600 to 74 feet by eliminating overwing hatches.
That would have saved about 1,100 pounds and allowed room for an extra
row of seats. It also would have saved Airbus production costs by
allowing a standardized center fuselage section to be used by both the
A340-600 and the A340-500, which will be a smaller but longer-range
After Airbus petitioned the FAA for an exemption to the 60-foot rule, the
Association of Flight Attendants' union warned last August that its
members might refuse to fly on the Airbus plane if the exemption were
The union, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants, said fewer
exits would pose a safety threat because it could mean delays in evacuating
passengers from the plane in an emergency.
"We thought Airbus and all the people who may order this plane should
know that if the petition goes through, they are going to have a tough time
getting flight attendants to fly on it," a union spokesman said at the time.
The first A340-600 was rolled out of the Airbus factory in Toulouse,
France, in December to begin ground testing.
That plane did not have the two overwing hatches, but an Airbus
spokesman said it will be retained as a testbed and will not be delivered to
an airline. All future A340-600s for delivery to Airbus customers will
have the overwing exits, the spokesman said.
Airbus had argued that removing the overwing exits would actually
improve safety because those exits could become blocked during an
The European airplane maker said the four type "A" doors on the
A340-600, which are wide enough to allow two people to pass through
simultaneously, provide adequate safety in an emergency.
In its submission to the FAA, Airbus said that data from controlled tests, as
well as analytical techniques that did not exist when the 60-foot rule was
adopted, are now available to better substantiate evacuation capability,
and the data shows that the rule does not add to safety.
In rejecting the Airbus petition, the FAA said:
Distance between exits is more critical in an arbitrary accident scenario
than during controlled test conditions.
The arguments put forward by Airbus were not substantively different than
those put forward at the time the rule was written.
While Airbus made some arguable points, the issues need to be discussed
in a wider forum before the FAA would consider regulatory changes.
It is not lost on some people at Boeing that Airbus had raised safety
concerns over the 747 door issue that led to the present 60-foot rule. The
flight attendants union had also raised objections to removing the overwing
hatches on the 747.
A few years later, Boeing again faced a similar door issue, this time with
its next generation 737.
Before Boeing could win European certification for the next generation
planes, the JAA required that overwing exits be installed.
That ruling by the JAA, which was supported by Airbus, cost Boeing
dearly because it had already started building the next generation models
following certification by the FAA.
Those planes had to be modified at considerable expense and at a time
when Boeing was already struggling with serious production problems.
When Airbus petitioned the FAA for an exemption to the 60-foot rule for
its A340-600, Boeing did not take a position.
A person familiar with the matter who asked not to be quoted by name said
Boeing executives did meet to discuss what they should do.
"Because the flight attendants were already against this, the decision was
made just to trust the system and not get involved, which would have
looked like we were just being spiteful," this person said.
"The past is past."