IN recent weeks the Federal Aviation Administration has been the target of ample criticism -- some of it well deserved -- for the small numbers in its inspector and air traffic controller force, and for the caliber of their performance. But in the realm of cabin safety -- namely the agency's stand on behalf of the passenger on the controversial issue of exit doors on the jumbo 747 -- FAA chief Donald Engen deserves some plaudits. In December 1983 the FAA's Northwest office in Seattle, which has virtual autonomy in certifying large commercial aircraft, approved a suggestion from Boeing that eight rather than the usual 10 exits would suffice on both existing 747s and the new 747-400. The manufacturer had argued that having two fewer exits over the wings would still allow compliance with FAA rules on evacuation timing.
Washington bureaucracy and decentralization being what they sometimes are, FAA headquarters personnel were not fully aware of the decision and its scope until more than a year later. The Association of Flight Attendants, the Air Line Pilots Association, and the National Transportation Safety Board had all begun to protest the order. This board noted it had found as many as half a plane's exits were unusable in some crashes. In a 1974 crash of a 747 in Nairobi, Kenya -- from which 98 passengers escaped -- only two exits, including one over the wing, were usable.
Mr. Engen, a retired Navy admiral and himself a pilot, then wrote US airlines asking that, despite formal FAA rules, they refrain from sealing off the two wing exits. When Boeing pressed the point again this year by renewing its request, Administrator Engen and the FAA responded by proposing a formal rules change which in essence would allow no more than 60 feet between exits and thus preserve the wing exits.
Unfortunately, after the FAA's Seattle decision, British Airways sealed the over-wing exits on its 747s. With Boeing it conducted a test in the state of Washington last February to prove that even with eight doors -- and half of those out of commission -- 550 passengers could still evacuate the craft within 90 seconds, meeting international standards. But three days of intensive drill work went into that test and, as Engen has said, evacuation is rarely as easy or swift in an actual crash situation. British Airways should be encouraged, despite the cost, to make the over-wing exits available once again.