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Court orders regulators to study airline seat size

Consumer group claims shrinking seating area is a threat to safety

Photo (c) AdobeStock
As many regular airline passengers have no doubt noticed, seating space in coach has gotten smaller over the years.

Not only have carriers improved efficiency and profits by selling more tickets on each flight, they have added seating to accommodate more passengers, while reducing the space for that seating. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has now been ordered to consider whether airlines have jeopardized safety.

The case stems from a petition filed with the FAA by the consumer group Flyers Rights. It asked the FAA to consider rulemaking to expand passenger seating areas as a health and safety issue. The FAA declined to do so.

Flyers Rights then took its case to court, seeking to force the agency to act. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FAA was wrong in denying the petition and ordered the FAA consider the consumer group's request.

Incredible shrinking airline seat

“This is the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat,” Circuit Judge Patricia A. Millett wrote in the majority opinion. “As many have no doubt noticed, aircraft seats and the spacing between them have been getting smaller and smaller, while American passengers have been growing in size.”

The ruling found that the FAA had no “reasonable basis” for refusing to consider airline seat size and passenger space. It found the agency relied on studies that were either irrelevant, outdated, or not included in the record or under seal.

Flyers Rights say it filed its petition with the FAA back in 2015, asking that it place a moratorium on shrinking seat sizes, while creating a standard that all airline seats must meet. The group argued the lack of a standard posed a safety threat in the event of an emergency evacuation.

“The FAA has not conducted, or alternatively has not released, any tests, whether computer simulations or rehearsed evacuations, that demonstrate that planes with modern seat sizes and modern passenger sizes would pass emergency evacuation criteria,” the group said in a statement.

An inch and a half narrower

In its petition, Flyers Rights argued that the average airline seat pitch, the distance between the backs of the seats, had gone from 35 inches to 31 inches in the last decade, while the seat width had declined an inch and a half, to 17 inches. The group said the cramped conditions made it more difficult for passengers to get off the aircraft quickly in the event of an emergency.

The FAA denied the group's petition last year, citing studies that showed the space between passengers was not important in an emergency evacuation.

If the FAA eventually sets seating standards for commercial aircraft, it could be the most significant government airline action since the industry was deregulated in 1979. Until that time, the FAA set fares for all flights and determined what routes an airline could fly.

Since all airlines had to charge the same fare, the only way an airline had of setting itself apart from competitors was improving comfort and service to its customers.

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