Federal Court Forcing FAA to Reconsider Decision Not to Regulate Seat Size

Yesterday a three judge panel of the Federal Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the FAA made procedural errors when it declined to regulate seat sizes.

The reportedly astroturf group Flyers’ Rights wanted the Obama administration to regulate seat sizes so that airlines would have to offer passengers more room.

  • They would effectively outlaw business models like Spirit’s, Frontier’s, and Allegiant’s. These airlines drive down pricing that legacy carriers have to match.

  • Without ultra low cost carriers many people wouldn’t be able to afford to fly. Some blog readers, and I, would still fly. This redistributes from the poorest Americans to those better off.

  • And it substitutes driving for flying which is less safe, a phenomenon known as statistical murder.

Singapore Airlines long haul economy seat: head rest, foot rest, video on demand and a cup holder

Flyers’ Rights wants this because it would make planes more comfortable for those who can still afford to fly. They also make arguments about health and safety.

Dennis Schaal of Skift explained,

Flyers Rights, which played a prominent role in current tarmac rules, successfully convinced the court that shrinking airline seats, coupled with people being bigger, is a safety hazard because it would slow exiting the aircraft in an emergency and because of the dangers of deep vein thrombosis.

I’m pretty sure that’s the same chain of logic that Congress will use to balance the budget.

American Airlines Boeing 787 economy legroom

Flyers’ Rights doesn’t like 17 inch seat width (they have a problem it seems with the fuselage of a Boeing 737) in addition to pitch. They argue that passengers are getting fatter so reducing space makes evacuation in an emergency more difficult. That’s their nose under the tent for their desire for bigger seats — claims about safety.

However contra claims by Flyers’ rights, the Obama administration argued that evacuation tests had been conducted on planes with 28 inch pitch, that pitch alone doesn’t determine space for egress, and ‘deep vein thrombosis’ isn’t actually related to seat pitch.

The Court though ruled that the FAA erred in not marshaling sufficient research to demonstrate that safety wasn’t at issue when denying the petition to engagement in a rulemaking.

The FAA was not ordered to engage in a rulemaking. The FAA says they have the evidence to deny the request for rulemaking. So the court ordered the FAA to provide “a properly reasoned disposition of the petition’s safety concerns about the adverse impact of decreased seat dimensions and increased passenger size on aircraft emergency egress.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary – I don’t know about the “redistribution” concept you mentioned. There are so many cheap flights out there, especially on international flights that it would be hard to argue that flying is too expensive. I will grant you that certain domestic routes are grossly overpriced and seem to be monopolized. And I have nothing against low cost carriers. That being said, the concept of a 29″ pitch seems to be going too far. Since most airlines (in theory, at least) make most of their money from premium cabins, the need to squeeze two more rows of economy seating in a plane from a lower seat pitch seems to be going too far. I think that, in my perfect world, economy seating should have enough room to accommodate the size of the average American without needing reconstructive knee surgery after a flight.

  2. It would not make any airline illegal. It would set a baseline for safety. Maybe they could charge a bit more, and not line people up like wood.

  3. You know what’s also illegal? Serving rancid food… If I want to open a rancid buffet, health code didn’t make my business model illegal, it made safety for the general public. This is what government is for.

  4. Lol. In the end they enforce obesity in the name of safety. Simply because most muricans are obese…

    It surely gave new perspective on the terms of “cattle class”…

  5. The point is that there’s nothing inherently unsafe about 29 inch pitch. Can it be uncomfortable? Sure. And if you don’t like it, don’t fly a plane/airline where that’s the option.

    The difference between a rancid buffet and 29 inch pitch is that one is a danger, and the other hasn’t proven to be.

    With only a few domestic carriers, so we potentially need more regulation? Maybe it’s that or finding a way to help new entrants muscle their way into an incredibly capital intensive business. But with other transport coming online: luxury coaches, speed trains, potentially some Elon Musk-ian underground travel, competition may come from other transport options, not other carriers.

  6. @Joelfreak – there’s no evidence this is unsafe. the opposite is true. we have 28 inch pitch and people fly it every day without documented ill effects. and regulating that seat pitch out of existence WOULD BE unsafe, because it would cause people to drive instead of fly and driving is less safe than flying with 28 inch pitch.

  7. @Joelfreak – “Maybe they could charge a bit more, and not line people up like wood.” as i explain, that’s fine for you and me. We could pay more. Not everyone could. this redistributes from those least able to pay to us, it’s regressive. and it imposes a safety tax on the least well off who would substitute less safe modes of transportation when they can no longer afford to fly. all so you can be more comfortable.

  8. @joelfreak – what are you talking about? How does seat size have anything to do with someone feeding you poison? Discomfort and disease/illness/death are not the same thing.

  9. Force airlines to show seat pitch and legroom at booking. Actually empower consumers to make an informed choice rather than being opaque and requiring inexperienced travelers to know enough to search other websites to know what they are buying. Clear information in the marketplace? Sacrelige!!

  10. @Gary “there’s no evidence this is unsafe. the opposite is true.”

    Classic argumentum ad ignorantiam.

    I expected better than informal logical fallacy from the self proclaimed “Thought Leader In Travel”

  11. @TSanderson – Transparency is good, but not sure it changes much for an inexperienced traveler shopping. An inexperienced traveler wouldn’t know what difference 28 vs 31 inches is. To someone who doesn’t fly much 3 inches sounds trivial.

  12. This decision will go no where. A court cannot force a regulatory agency to regulate, when they themselves feel there is no reason to do so. My guess is that this was an ultra-left wing activist court, and even if they DO attempt to force the issue – It will be overturned by any reasonable one.

    Side note: Flew Allegiant for the first time ever back in June. Flight was pretty much on-par with United Economy. A military ID makes nearly all of the things you have to pay extra for – Free. If I didn’t collect United miles for overseas Business/First class flights – I’d probably always fly them, if given the option. Even without, paying slightly extra for an exit row makes the flight quite decent.

  13. If people read the actual article and decision, they would see that:
    1) no live people tests are done on evacuation any more, as its considered too dangerous. Computer simulation is done now.

    2) the court said that the fastest must say WHY they denied the request by the organization, they can’t just dismiss it.

    But please keep telling me how everything is safe and this is a liberal court.

  14. If passengers can’t get out of the row they are seated in, or the aisle is jammed with the 12 extra passengers the airline crammed on the flight, it matters not if the exit row is slightly wider and there the seatbacks don’t recline. It is a safety issue if you can’t get off the plane in time in a fire. There is a good reason why seats in movie theatres all have a set amount of legroom, and sufficient aisle space and exit proximity to get people out quickly if there is a fire. Airplanes should be required to provide the same safe egress path to passengers. A 28″ pitch with a row of reclined seats in front of you isn’t going to allow people to get out quickly or at all to the aisle. This should be mandated, and if it alters some budget airlines unsafe business model, good. Gary will be up in first class or business anyway, critiquing the champers, so I can see where he would be callous and dismissive of valid safety concerns. Talk about having your nose under the tent, let’s compare the offerings on the first class menu, mostly likely on an award flight, with the chances for survival in an emergency of a real revenue passenger, budget or not. I guess budget class flyers concern for safety and survival don’t measure up to frequent flyer free riders real concerns with the quality of free dining and free drink they are serving up front. It’s just not aspirational enough for serious concern here, just strawman free market drivel.

  15. Why not conduct real evacuation simulations, ie using real people in real seats in a real fuselage? This way you can verify the results against the computer simulation.
    Does the airplane mfg, the airline, the seat designer, really want to find out that the computer sim had an embarrassing miscalculation after a real evacuation?
    And how does the plane handle all that weight of 12 more seats, passengers, and luggage? I mean we pay a lot of money for going five pounds over on a luggage because the plane burns so much more fuel. Or are the airlines exaggerating that claim too?

  16. Are you really arguing that less seat pitch has no impact on egress in an emergency? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Your arguments would also apply to 15″ seat pitch.

    Why are planes allowed denser configurations that the fire laws for movie theaters? Should those refs be eliminated?

    You play both sides regarding studies. Show me the study that says people will drive from Chicago to Florida if flights cost more. I’m sure gas prices have a bigger effect. Folks would likely just stay home.

    I usually like your logic, but this time you make no sense.

  17. Unless there is a REAL safety issue, regulating seat pitch seems like a horrible idea. It’s the classic case of unintended consequences. Yes, we would all get more legroom; but it would also cause airfares to soar by eliminating low fare competition.

    If there is a real safety issue, that certainly seems like an issue for the executive branch and not the judicial branch. While this ruling seems squirrely to me, it does seem to acknowledge this. Certainly, we have no evidence so far that anyone has ever died because their seat pitch sucked.

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