Federal Judges Force FAA to Reconsider Minimum Seat Size Requirements

Jul 31, 2017

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Passenger rights groups notched a noteworthy victory on Friday in their battle to mandate minimum seat sizes. In an unanimous decision, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with Flyers Rights vs. the FAA when it came to the argument on whether the Federal Aviation Administration should set minimum seat size requirements.

The argument centered around whether current safety studies are enough to determine if passengers in a tightly packed aircraft cabin can still evacuate safely. The FAA asserted that its safety tests show these aircraft are safe. Meanwhile, the passenger rights group pointed to the ever-shrinking seat sizes over the past decade and ever-growing size of the average American.

This latter argument won the case, with one of the judges pointing specifically to this in the decision. Judge Patricia Millett wrote about the “Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat,” noting that “aircraft seats and the spacing between them have been getting smaller and smaller, while American passengers have been growing in size.”

The 31" seat pitch did not leave much leg room!
31-inch seat pitch is the new de-facto standard in economy.

Indeed, seat pitch has dropped from an average of 35 inches in the 1970s down to just 31 inches today, meanwhile average seat width has shrunk from 18.5 inches a decade ago to about 17 inches today. 17-inch width is what you’ll find on American Airlines’ and United’s 10-wide Boeing 777s and 9-wide Boeing 787s. While most 777s were originally fit with nine seats across, more and more airlines are opting to retrofit the economy cabins with an extra seat per row, while also shrinking seat pitch. And, while the 787 Dreamliner was designed as a 8-across aircraft, almost all airlines have opted for a 9-across economy configuration with seats that are just 17 inches wide.

However, this decision wasn’t a total win for the the passenger rights group. While other topics such as deep vein thrombosis and blood clots were addressed in court arguments, the ruling only mandated the FAA to address seat size when it relates to emergency evacuations, not health or comfort.

There are other efforts to lobby the FAA to mandate minimum seat size. While a federal “SEAT Act” law failed to get any traction last year, a new approach was successful in inserting the “Cohen Act” into the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill. This amendment will “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.”

One way or another, it seems travelers will get soon get some justice in the “Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat.”

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