How Did Airbus Ace Its Airplane Evacuation Test?

There were only 33 injuries.

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The new, supersized Airbus A380 was given its compulsory passenger-evacuation test on Sunday, as all 873 passengers and crew made it off the plane in less than a minute and a half. Airbus officials called the test “a very great success” despite the fact that 33 participants required medical attention. Are airplane evacuation tests always so dangerous?

Yes. Evacuating a plane can be quite perilous—whether you’re a real passenger or a volunteer in a certification test. A government study of airline evacuation drills in the 1970s and 1980s found that almost 5 percent of the participants get hurt. (The injury rate for Sunday’s Airbus test was 3.8 percent.) That’s because they have to jump down inflatable slides that are up to 26 feet off the ground.

It’s easy to hurt yourself on the way down, especially if your bare skin touches the slide. Friction causes the majority of evacuation injuries; 32 of the 33 mishaps from the Airbus test were “slide burns.” Dismounting can also be treacherous. New slides are inlaid with strips of Velcro-like material near the bottom, to slow your descent. But these don’t always do the job. If you don’t plant both feet when you get to the bottom of the slide—or if you plant your feet too hard—you can easily sprain or fracture your ankle or break your leg.

In America, the FAA sets the rules for evacuation tests. (The tests in Europe are pretty much the same.) A manufacturer must show that the airplane’s maximum capacity of passengers and crewmembers can evacuate the plane in less than 90 seconds—the time it takes a fire to engulf a standard cabin. The fake passengers must be representative of real travelers, which means at least 40 percent should be female and 35 percent have to be older than 50. Three participants must also carry a large doll, to represent an infant.

The emergency simulation takes place in a plane that’s parked in a dark hangar. Everyone must evacuate via emergency exits, with only the track lighting on the floor to guide them. They can use only half of the exits, though—one from each pair is blocked off. Testers also strew bags, pillows, and other debris in the aisles to simulate the chaos of a real airline accident. (Critics of the system complain that they’re not nearly realistic enough. Click here for more on this.)

Manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing typically encourage their employees to participate in the tests, and then they fill out the remainder of the seats with hired volunteers. According to the FAA, no company employee is allowed to sit in the exit row, and you can’t participate in more than one test every six months.

Anyone who takes part in an evacuation test must sign a liability waiver, and volunteers all get special medical coverage under an insurance plan provided by the manufacturer. (Medical teams also hang around the testing site to treat injuries as they occur.) That didn’t stop Dorothy Myles from filing a lawsuit after she broke her neck during a 1991 evacuation test. Myles, a volunteer who was paid $49 to participate in the test, slipped at the top of the slide and careened down headfirst.

After Myles’ injury, the FAA changed its testing policies. First, passengers were allowed to escape to raised platforms instead of jumping down slides. Then flight crews were allowed to deploy and check the slides before the test began. In some cases, a manufacturer doesn’t have to fill every seat. A “partial test” shows how many passengers per minute can get off the plane.

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Explainer thanks David Palmerton of the Federal Aviation Administration, Tom Tripp of Lufthansa, and Liz Verdier of the Boeing Company.