Court Orders Airline Administration To Explain The ‘Shrinking Airline Seat’ Issue

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Thomas Phippen Associate Editor
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A three-judge panel declined to order the Federal Airline Administration (FAA) to regulate airline seat sizes, but did ask the administration to reconsider a petition to regulate airline seats.

The order was not a clear victory for Flyers Rights, but did offer the group some hope in “the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat,” as U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Millett called it in an opinion released Friday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia did not order the FAA to make a new rule on airline seats, but asked the administration “to adequately address the petition and the emergency egress concerns it raises.”

Nonprofit group Flyers Rights asked the FAA to regulate the size of airline seats in 2015, and the FAA denied the petition in January 2016. The size of airline seats have shrunk from an average width of 18.5 inches in the early 2000s to 17 inches in 2015, according to Flyers Rights. The space between the seat in front has likewise shrunk to between 28 and 31 inches, from an average of 35 inches.

“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,” Millett said in the opinion. American Airlines announced that it will shrink the space between seats from 31 inches to 29 inches, CNN reported in May.

While the FAA “reasonably concluded that matters pertaining exclusively to passenger ‘comfort’ are not within its regulatory wheelhouse,” Millett wrote. Likewise, it is not the FAA’s job to issue regulations for the health of passengers, since the clotting blood was not necessarily a result of the airline seats.

Concerning the safety issue of escaping from small airline aisle ways, however, the court considered the FAA’s reasons for denying Flyers Rights’ petition inadequate.

“The Administration’s rationale also blinks reality,” Millet said of FAA’s lack of data. “As a matter of basic physics, at some point seat and passenger dimensions would become so squeezed as to impede the ability of passengers to extricate themselves from their seats and get over to an aisle.”

The FAA is “studying the ruling carefully and any potential actions we may take to address the Court’s findings,” a spokesman for the FAA told the Wall Street Journal.

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