Federal Courts Are Considering Whether FAA Has To Mandate Bigger Airline Seats

A consumer group, Flyers Rights, is seeking to have the courts compel the FAA to impose minimum seat size standards. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard this argument today.

The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act called for the FAA to set standards. The government says that the broad authority of the FAA to promote safety controls, and to the extent these standards aren’t needed for safety then no such standards should be promulgated. This summer the FAA began taking public comments on the need for seat size standards for safety reasons. This was broadly misreported as a need for seat size standards and most people who want rules want more space – not necessarily for safety (e.g. evacuation) reasons.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The major U.S. airlines don’t offer less than 30 inches of “pitch” or the distance from seat back to seat back.

  • Frontier and Spirit Airlines both go as low as 28 inches.

  • If federal courts push the FAA to impose seat size rules, we’re not going to see changes to seat width. There’s really been no reduction in width on narrowbody aircraft. Boeing 737s, for instance, have been 3-abreast for decades.

Instead what most travelers – since most travelers are domestic travelers – will see is either:

  1. No change. The FAA sets minimum seat size equal to status quo seat size, requiring at least 28 inches of pitch (or less).

  2. 29 or 30 inch pitch required. That has zero effect on Delta, United, American or Southwest. Instead it affects only the business models of the ultra-low cost carriers.

Some widebody aircraft, squeezing 10-abreast on Boeing 777s or 9-abreast on 787s, squeeze about half an inch of width out of seats compared to Boeing’s narrowbody planes. It is highly unlikely that the FAA would overrule these seating configurations, which also tend to offer an inch more legroom.

Instead, with regulations that potentially encroach on Spirit and Frontier, major airlines will face Less competition from low cost carriers. The government would be outlawing their business model. That would mean higher prices for the majority of passengers who are flying on mainline airlines on routes which face low cost carrier competition.

Spirit Airlines is even poised to be acquired by JetBlue and JetBlue has said they will retrofit Spirit planes to match their interiors. If the merger closes, there will be fewer planes operating at bare minimum legroom – no regulation required. If what you want is to eliminate a chunk of the tightest airline legroom in one swoop, you should favor the federal government getting out of the way of this merger (anti-trust review).

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. Just out of curiosity, does FAA currently regulates plane total passenger capacity? That would be the logical safety metric, isn’t it?

  2. Leaving seat size to the airlines is liking have the fox guard the hen house. Regulation is a sensible approach. First, it is a matter of safety. The emergency tests performed by the airline are a joke. They ignore the pertinent facts that there are many older and overweight travelers. Their tests have not truly reflected how a normal set of passengers would exit an aircraft in an emergency. Second, what is wrong with regulating a modicum of confort into seat size. Remember the airlines and aircraft manufacturers designed the restrooms on aircraft. Who can defend how small and inadequate they are? Third, this is not about profit and loss, it is about safety. The FAA’s rulemaking authority is broad and it should use it to set absolute minimum standards. They did so in setting ADA standards which was simple and encouraging for all of us – someday we all will need help.

  3. @Andy, no, FAA requires a 1:50 ratio of flight attendants to passengers, which spurned the development of regional jets with exactly 50 passengers so the flight can be staffed with just 1 attendant. The number might not be exactly 50, but you get the idea.

    @Gary, you point out wisely that seat width is just as much if not more of an issue than seat pitch. I don’t understand why this is such a big blind spot across gov’t agencies. EPA, as an example, classifies cars as compact/full size with no regard for the car’s width. Maybe that was acceptable once upon a time, but now, parking spots are shrinking, city lanes are narrowing, yet cars are only getting wider. The newest Honda Civic is as wide as older Accords and this is very much not a Honda trend. (BTW – do not buy the new Civic, it’s terribly noisy and the CarPlay system is glitchy as all hell.)

    @Gary, you lament a potential increase in airfares when government regulation intervenes. I say that’s a good thing. A lot of airfare is paid with OPM, not the passengers. Let people travel in dignity, please.

  4. Get the government out of it. Let the market decide. If you want more legroom… there are MANY options for you. I am SO SICK of people relying on the government to handle the free market. If you want more government involvement in your life, I have no way to help you. The only thing I can say is there are many countries out there that will take you in that have full control over every purchase you make. Be REALLY careful what you wish for. One little thing here, one little thing there. It all adds up

  5. I’d still love to see a plane truly empty out with real passengers in 90 seconds with the current seating. Between age, weight, possible smoke or fire, infirmities, confusion, people trying to grab bags, etc. I just don’t find it likely.

  6. To SMR – You say, “Get the government out of it.” What about the Food and Drug Admiinistraton protection our food from harmful substances? What about the Department of Transportation setting safety standards for our automobiles so you and your children are protected? What about government regulations on the safety of our banking system? You are being short sighted if you believe private companies and the marketplace alone will “do the right thing”. I appreciate we can go to far with the nanny state protectionism that some seek, but reasonable regulations protect us all.

  7. People such as SMR are naive, ignorant, simpletons. Advocates of small government are losers in life who haven’t learned to work within the rules of society and who believe systemic bias is the cause of their failure, even though these people are usually whites who have the most privilege of any race in America.

    “The free market” is an academic concept useful in economic modeling but not a north star for actual policy. As in any academic model, there are underlying ASSUMPTIONS required for the free market to work as intended. One of these assumptions is perfect free agency and symmetric information. Even the lowest of low IQ travelers can tell you this is not the case. How many of us have ever read a full Contract of Carriage (CoC)? How many of us know educated reasonable people who have been duped by hidden fees that were not disclosed in a clear, upfront, straightforward, honest fashion?

    The government should not pick winners and losers. Leave the Freddie Awards to us. But when it comes to the safety and dignity of our people, authority is absolutely necessary. Our government should do what it takes to make our country one that we can all be proud to live in.

  8. You have a choice to book on airlines with small seats , big seats , first class , economy comfort , free snack s … no free snacks . The options are there … what’ are you looking for here? What would you like the government to do for you today ? I’m guessing you all aren’t so concerned about safety as you are getting a larger seat for less money then the market asks for. Tell me I’m wrong …. It’s the same thing as forcing higher minimum wages to put people out in the streets. The real minimum wage is 0 and the minimum speed of travel is how fast you can walk or run.

    Food is a different commodity. Hundreds of millions of people eat food everyday … how many millions have ever evacuated an aircraft ?

  9. @breton lobner says:
    What about the Food and Drug Administration protection our food from harmful substances?
    The same FDA that has approved the processed food that literally IS a harmful substance and has farmers who want to sell raw milk fined and jailed?

    What about the Department of Transportation setting safety standards for our automobiles so you and your children are protected? The same DoT that sets safety standards for EV’s that combust while parked or auto-drive into emergency vehicles and semi’s?

    What about government regulations on the safety of our banking system? The banking systems that have caused multiple market crashes and have had to be bailed out multiple times in the past?

    YOU are the short sighted one if you believe Government will ever choose to “do the right thing”.

  10. Thank you @breton. My point exactly. They don’t do any good anyway so stay out. They just increase costs and create an unnecessary burden on businesses .

  11. The only basis the FAA has to rule on the size of seats is whether aircraft can be sufficiently evacuated.
    The simple reality is that the FAA is NOT looking at the size of Americans which is the sole reason why aircraft widths are no longer sufficient.
    If the FAA wants to stick its nose into the discussion, it has to provide rules on what size is excessive for standard configurations of aircraft.
    Airbus 320 and Boeing 737 family aircraft ARE 6 abreast and that cannot economically change.
    People need to be put through sizers just like baggage; if they won’t fit in the space of one seat, then they need to be forced to buy another seat.


    The same is true for seat pitch. Even tall, thin people may not be comfortable in 30 inch seats but getting out is not a safety risk.

  12. I agree @TimDunn. I was thinking about how much our government cares about our safety. They restrict US airlines from operating in and out of Thailand since Thailand ATC system got downgraded to a level 2 whatever that means. Meanwhile our controllers are the ones over – worked , falling asleep and sending aircraft 499 miles out of the way since we can staff JAX center. So they are looking out for your safety restricting business from operating. Of course all this really means is you have to connect since every other country on Earth can fly to Thailand. They will also gladly take your 5 ounces of hair gel from you … to keep you safe and secure. All of this stuff … it’s illusions of security. It’s common sense more seats , same exits yeah it may take longer to evacuate .. choose your airline wisely. I recommend private jets. Their exit to passenger ratio is the best in the biz.

  13. People are missing Gary’s point about this really being targeted only at Frontier and Spirit. Nobody is required to fly those airlines, or to fly at all; many choose to do so and there are several airlines, classes of service and configurations.

    Where Frontier and Spirit do compete with the majors, they keep prices in check for everyone. For routes where the majors don’t compete with them, people will lose service when Frontier and Spirit can’t operate them profitably.

    I really doubt there’s a material difference in evacuation time between 28-inch pitch and 30-inch pitch.

  14. As Gary pointed out, this is really just an attack on the ULCCs (the few that remain). WIth JetBlue already planning a full retrofit of the Spirit fleet, Frontier would be left to eat the cost of changing every aircraft. There go the low fares, unless….

    To all the big gov’t lovers in the comments: How much do you bet that JetBlue/Spirit will push hard for gov’t subsidies to cover retrofits caused by these new regulations? Sounds like a great way to get those Spirit planes changed over to JetBlue for next to no cost

  15. Let’s hope that after November they will stop with all this regulatory meddling! I mean, why should citizens be treated with dignity by corporations? Let them abuse us without restraints.

  16. I just learned what if airlines were to hire 12 year old children to clean the airplanes costs would go down and the ULCCs would benefit. Hopefully they will remove.regulations against child labor.so they can compete more.

    No child labor = more expensive. Hard pass.

  17. DaveS,
    we got Gary’s point completely and nearly all of us agree.
    Frontier offers a more cramped option because people want to pay less and I, as someone that doesn’t want to fly them, am happy that people have an option.
    What I am saying is that the government is not in any way justified to be dictating the size of airline seats unless they prove what the real problem is.
    The problem isn’t seats that are too close together but the large number of super-sized Americans which can’t fit in those seats any more.
    The FAA does need to figure out if the range of Americans can evacuate from aircraft of various configurations.
    They also need to figure out if each airline has an equal proportion of slim, average and super-sized Americans and then state what the real problem is – the spacing of aircraft seats or the size of humans.
    Airbus and Boeing sell their aircraft around the world. There is something fundamentally wrong when Americans whine about not having enough space but Boeing manages to sell its aircraft around the world – with many of them configured even tighter than in the US.

    And then throw in the cats and dogs and carryons and the problem might not be the planes themselves but all of the stuff that gets brought on including the surplus amounts of flesh by some passengers.

    If there is a problem getting airplanes evacuated, figure out why and increase fares for those people but don’t penalize people that can comfortably fit in a Frontier size seat – even if I don’t want to – and carry just a small backpack and no animals on the aircraft w/ them.

  18. Here’s what I wonder…

    Let’s say they went aggressive and mandated 34″ pitch.

    That would be a lot more supply of 34″+ seats than today.

    For the traveler that refuses to book an option with less than 34″ pitch today, and pays the fee for the extra room today, would air travel become more expensive? The glut of supply would argue possibly no.

    Obviously most readers here don’t pay for their extra legroom today and earn it via program benefits.

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