Congress Tells FAA to Set Pitch Minimums on US Aircraft

Oct 5, 2018

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Congress passed its long-delayed reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Association this week. The bill, which reauthorizes the aviation body for another five years, passed the House of Representatives in September, was approved by the Senate on Wednesday and has been sent to the White House for final approval.

Along with giving the FAA authority to continue overseeing US airlines, Congress drafted some notable mandates included in the bill. The major one — that air passenger advocates have been pushing for — is that the FAA will be required to set seat pitch minimums within a year. This is good news for passengers as ever-shrinking airline seats have been crammed closer and closer over the years.

Here’s the bad news, though: Experts say passengers shouldn’t expect any more legroom than what they’re seeing now, which is usually about 30-31 inches of pitch (unless you’re flying Spirit, the tightest seat squeeze in the industry with a pitch of just 28 inches.)

“If they come up with a minimum seat regulation, that minimum will mirror the minimum in the market today,” Samuel Engel, senior vice president for aviation at consulting firm ICF, told the New York Times. “So it won’t make things better.”

The FAA released a report about shrinking seat sizes in February, but had previously fought off the idea of setting the industry-wide legroom minimum. The Flyer Rights Education Fund, an air passenger advocate group, filed a petition in 2016 with a federal court. They wanted the FAA to set a legroom minimum on what it dubbed “sardine seats” because it impacted passenger safety — especially in an evacuation. The FAA refused. In a statement from July, the agency said that issue should be worked out between airlines and flyers.

Now the FAA will be compelled to set the pitch minimums. But it still will likely only regulate the space in regards to evacuation safety.

Other notable new regulations in the final bill for flyers include the banning of forcibly removing passengers seated on overbooked flights (a la the Dr. Dao United flight incident) and formally forbidding inflight cell phone calls (which flyers already couldn’t do). There was no change to airlines’ ability to charge reservation change fees or baggage fees, which earn them a ton of money.

The FAA had previously been operating on a series of authorization extensions since 2017, and industry experts say that this five-year bill will provide more consistency for US passengers.

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