Minimum airline seat standards gain momentum after surprise court ruling

As any commercial airline passenger who has had to contort his or her body into an economy class seat knows, airline seat pitch — a rough measure of legroom — has shrunk over the last several decades, from an average of 35 inches to as little as 28 inches. Seat width has been reduced from an average of 18.5 inches to 17 inches.

Consumer advocates have been pushing the government to set minimum seat standards to avoid further shrinkage, but the Federal Aviation Administration has denied those requests. But earlier this year, Flyers Rights took the FAA to court over seat sizes. And yesterday, in a surprise court ruling, passengers won a small but important victory when a court remanded Flyers Rights’ petition to government regulators.

The decision paves the way for seat size regulation — which if implemented, could have far-reaching effects for air travelers. A minimum seat size could make air travel more comfortable and potentially safer, but also pricier.

Size matters, wrote Circuit Court Judge Patricia Millett. “This is the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat,” she noted in her opinion for Flyers Rights’ Petition for Review of an Order of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

After the FAA denied a petition by Flyers Rights to regulate and issue rules setting minimum limits on airline seat pitch and size, three of the Circuit Court Judges, Millett and her colleagues Judith Rogers and Cornelia Pillard, ruled that the FAA must issue a seat rule.

The opinion notes that “Flyers Rights expressed concern that the decrease in seat size, coupled with the increase in passenger size, imperiled passengers’ health and safety by slowing emergency egress and by causing deep vein thrombosis (a potentially fatal condition involving blood clots in the legs), as well as “soreness, stiffness, [and] other joint and muscle problems.”

Flyers Rights had asked the FAA to issue regulations that would

  • “set maintenance standards and limit the extent of seat size changes [on commercial airlines] in order to ensure consumer safety, health, and comfort”
  • “place a moratorium on any further reductions in seat size, width, pitch, padding, and aisle width until a final rule is issued” and
  • “appoint an advisory committee or task force to assist and advise the [FAA] in proposing seat and passenger space rules and standards”

The FAA’s denial indicated that “in addressing petitions for rulemaking, the agency weighs

    • the immediacy of the safety or security concerns raised,
    • the priority of other issues the [FAA] must deal with, and the resources we have available to address these issues.”

    The FAA concluded that the petition did not warrant action “because the issues raised related to passenger health and comfort, and did not raise an immediate safety or security concern.”

    But as Judge Millett noted, “The Administration’s denial of the petition for rulemaking did not cite any studies or tests to corroborate its representations. Nor did it challenge Flyers Rights’ characterization of seat dimension decreases or passenger size increases.”

    Flyers Rights then asked the FAA to “formally cite the study(ies) it relied on” in denying the petition. The FAA listed some of its own reports, but “did not address the impact of smaller seat dimensions or increased passenger size on the ability of passengers to expeditiously leave their seats and reach the emergency exits.”

    The court issued a mixed ruling:

    We agree with Flyers Rights that the Administration failed to provide a plausible evidentiary basis for concluding that decreased seat sizes combined with increased passenger sizes have no effect on emergency egress. But we disagree with Flyers Rights’ challenge to the Administration’s declination to regulate matters of physical comfort and routine health.

    So the FAA needs to come up with studies that prove to the court’s satisfaction that narrower seats and smaller pitch don’t make it harder for air passengers to deplane in emergencies.

    Too bad the court didn’t side with Flyers Rights on whether the FAA can be compelled to issue regulations that set minimum standards for seat pitch and width based on “matters of physical comfort and routine health.” But we’ll settle for one out of two.

    Other moves to regulate seat size are in the works. In June, The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization to require the FAA to establish a minimum seat size on commercial airlines as well as a minimum distance between rows of seats to protect the safety and health of airline passengers.

    Hopefully, this will mean that we’ll start seeing wider seats and more space between seat rows on commercial flights one of these days. But since the court didn’t rule that the FAA has to set any particular minimum, the best way to make clear to airlines that they need to stop adding extra rows of narrower seats is to vote with your wallet.

    Airlines continue to engage in these practices because passengers are willing to pay peanuts for cramped seating. This means that passengers will have to accept a trade-off by paying more money for more comfortable seats. But if the market does what the courts won’t do, everyone will be able to enjoy happier air travel experiences.

    Should the government regulate airline seat size?

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