The United States Court of Appeals for Washington D.C., or D.C. District Court, has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to review its stance on airline seat size. It also urged the administration to review legroom reductions for passengers who fly economy class.
The court ruled that the FAA must reconsider its stance that smaller seats aren’t a safety issue, adding that the FAA relied on junk science to reach its decision.
“This is the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat,” federal circuit court judge Patricia Millett wrote in her decision on behalf of the court. “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.”
Flyers Rights Education Fund, a nonprofit that served as the plaintiff in the case, brought evidence that seat pitch has reduced from 35 inches to about 31. Some airlines, like Spirit and Frontier, have seat pitches as small as 28 inches. In addition, seat with has gone from 18.5 inches in 2000 to 17 inches today. The group argued that the smaller seats are both unhealthy and unsafe during emergency situations.
Flyers Rights first petitioned the FAA to review the situation in 2015. When the FAA refused, Flyers Rights took them to court, where they would eventually win.
“We applaud the court’s decision, and the path to larger seats has suddenly become a bit wider,” said Kendall Creighton, a spokeswoman for Flyers Rights.
The ruling, however, doesn’t mean that the FAA will actually change anything. Rather, it requires the Administration to come up with a better-reasoned response to safety concerns.
“Accordingly, when the [FAA] responds to a petition for rulemaking that exposes a plausible life-and-death safety concern, the Administration must reasonably address that risk in its responds,” read Millett’s opinion statement. “The Administration failed that task here.”
“We do consider seat pitch in testing and assessing the safe evacuation of commercial, passenger aircraft,” wrote the FAA in a statement. “We are studying the ruling carefully and any potential actions we may take to address the court’s findings.”
Despite the FAA’s reluctance to move on this subject, there is a massive push (emphasized by the court’s decision) to increase seat size to where it was a decade ago. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) is putting a second attempt at the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act forward. The SEAT Act is an attempt to regulate seat size and legroom on flights, but it has had trouble in the past. Cohen plans to attach his proposal to a bill that renews the FAA’s authority on September 30 of this year.
Airlines for America, an airline advocacy group, has declined to comment on this story.