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90 seconds with how much legroom? FAA faces audit of airplane evacuation standards

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In this photo provided by passenger Jose Castillo, fellow passengers walk away from a burning American Airlines jet that aborted takeoff and caught fire on the runway at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Friday, Oct. 28, 2016.

By Leslie Josephs, CNBC
  • A Federal watchdog wants to know how FAA is updating evacuation standards.
  • The DOT's inspector general's office says passenger behavior and seating configurations have changed.
  • One concern is passengers bringing carry-on baggage with them during an evacuation.

A U.S. Department of Transportation watchdog is reviewing federal oversight of aircraft evacuation standards, as airline seating gets tighter and passengers bring more carry-on baggage with them on board.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires that aircraft can be evacuated within 90 seconds in the case of an emergency.

But the inspector general's office of the Department of Transportation said these standards haven't been significantly updated since 1990, while passenger behavior and cabin configurations have changed.

Airlines have added more seats and cut seat pitch on board as air travel demand has grown.

The inspector general's office will evaluate how FAA is updating standards given those changes and assess the agency's "process for determining whether aircraft as currently configured meet evacuation standards."

"We look forward to working with the OIG to explain how we ensure airlines are complying with our regulations on emergency evacuations," the FAA said in a statement.

Passenger behavior that could hamper evacuation could include the retrieval of cabin baggage, which many passengers carry on board to avoid checked-luggage fees.

A Miami-bound American AirlinesAAL flight that caught fire prompted an evacuation of the Boeing 767 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in October 2016.

The National Transportation Safety Board said in its report on the incident that "some passengers evacuated from all three usable exits with carry-on baggage" even though flight attendants instructed passengers to leave their in-cabin luggage behind. The issue is a recurring concern, the NTSB said.

"As consistently seen elsewhere during evacuations, our crew was forced to confront a visible minority of passengers who ignored instructions to leave luggage behind," said American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein. "American Airlines believes this is an issue that warrants additional industry attention, given the risks that non-compliant passengers pose to themselves and others by slowing the evacuation and, potentially, puncturing and deflating critical escape slides."

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