Robert Silk
Robert Silk

The 1,200-page, five-year FAA reauthorization bill that Congress finally passed early this month contains provisions on myriad topics, including drones, airport grant funding, flight attendant rest requirements and much more.

But it was a short, 73-word clause mandating the FAA to set minimum standards for seat sizes and seat pitch that drew the lion's share of national headlines.

"House passes act that could lead to more comfortable airline seats," a Fortune headline trumpeted.

"Senate approves bill that would regulate airline seat sizes," stated the headline of a USA Today story on the FAA reauthorization.

And my own Travel Weekly story was headlined "Congress mandates airline seat regulation in FAA bill."

It was a good blast of publicity for Congress, which is perceived by many flyers to have been too deferential to airlines' steady march in recent years toward tighter and less comfortable economy-class accommodations.

But what remains to be seen is whether the mandate will actually lead to any changes in the seating configurations on U.S. airliners. My guess is that it won't. Indeed, it's possible the clause could have the consequence of tempting airlines to tighten legroom even further.

To explain why I feel this way, it's worth looking at the specifics of the clause that made it into the FAA reauthorization bill. It requires the FAA to issue regulations on seat size and the space between rows (seat pitch) within a year, "that are necessary for the safety of passengers."

The clause doesn't even address passenger comfort. Nor does it address the question of whether tight seat configurations can be unhealthy, as some consumer advocates claim. It's only about safety.

As it happens, as recently as this summer the FAA emphatically stated its position that existing seat configurations on U.S. airliners are safe. Those configurations bottom out at 28 inches of pitch on the ultralow-cost carriers Spirit and Frontier and go as low as 16 inches in width on some American Airlines aircraft, according to the website SeatGuru by TripAdvisor.

Under FAA rules, aircraft must be able to be evacuated in 90 seconds or less. For years, the FAA asserted that today's fleet of commercial planes uniformly meet that standard, even as it refused to release evacuation tests conducted by aircraft manufacturers under the rationale that those tests are proprietary. But in the summer of 2017 a federal court ordered the FAA to review seat sizes and pitch while also objecting to the practice of keeping evacuation tests secret.

After an incubation period of nearly a year, the agency responded to that order this past July with the assertion that evacuation efficiency is constrained only by emergency exits, not the density of seats. The FAA supported its conclusion by placing videos in the public docket of safety evacuations conducted by Airbus, Embraer and Boeing. Only the Embraer video, however, shows a full test. The available Airbus and Boeing videos are truncated. The FAA also didn't release the actual evacuation test results, saying that it typically doesn't retain such records.

The consumer advocacy group FlyersRights.org, which brought the case against the FAA, has since petitioned the court to review the adequacy of the FAA response.

Consumer advocates and the judiciary aren't alone in questioning the thoroughness of the FAA's approach to overseeing aircraft seat density. In June, the DOT's Office of the Inspector General began an audit of the agency's oversight of aircraft evacuation procedures, noting that evacuation standards have not been consequentially updated since 1990.

"Significant changes in the industry and consumer behavior have occurred since 1990," auditors stated in a news release. "For example, the number of aircraft seats and passengers have increased, but seat size and distance between seats, known as seat pitch, have decreased."

The office said it would assess the FAA's development and updating of aircraft emergency evacuation standards as well as its process for determining if aircraft as currently configured meet evacuation standards.

Despite the FAA's history of opposing actions that would impact existing seat configurations, FlyersRights.org president Paul Hudson told me recently that he can anticipate a scenario in which the agency would require more seating space than some U.S. airlines currently offer economy passengers.

As a result of the new reauthorization bill, he said, the FAA is feeling pressure to take a closer look at the interplay between denser aircraft interiors and evacuation times from three sides: the courts, Congress and the DOT's inspector general.

Auditors, according to Hudson's line of reasoning, could find that the evacuation tests submitted by aircraft manufacturers over the past three decades are inadequate. In addition, the court could grant the latest FlyersRights.org petition, ratcheting up pressure on the FAA even more. Under such a circumstance and faced with the one-year Congressional deadline to set standards, the FAA might feel cornered into setting minimums that disrupt the status quo, Hudson said.

In other words, the agency just might require Frontier and Spirit to reconfigure their planes to provide for more pitch, and it might require American to install wider seats on industry-trailing aircraft, such as some of its Airbus A319s.

Such measures would surely be viewed in certain circles as draconian, even as they would be hailed by others. But there are legitimate questions about whether such a move by the FAA would actually benefit airline consumers.

What if, for example, the agency set the minimum pitch at 30 inches, thereby requiring Frontier and Spirit to put fewer seats on their planes?

Wouldn't such a move lead to higher ticket prices on those airlines? And since Spirit, Frontier and fellow ultralow-cost carrier Allegiant play an outsize role in holding down economy ticket prices throughout the domestic airline industry, wouldn't such a mandate bolster the major carriers at the expense of cost-conscious American flyers?

Hudson, for one, doesn't see that type of doomsday scenario playing out. He argues instead that discount carriers would draw from a wider field of customers if the flying experience they offered was more comfortable, thereby enabling them to make up for any losses in margins with increased revenues.

Still, Hudson also said the FAA might set minimum seat widths and seat pitch below what have become the de facto minimums in place today. So, for example, the FAA could say 26 inches of pitch is safe.

The handful of industry analysts I've spoken with about this issue see this second scenario as far more likely than one in which the FAA takes any step that would impact existing aircraft configurations.

"They are certainly not going to set the standards any higher than we see today," said Jason Rabinowitz, data research manager of RouteHappy, which provides amenity merchandising platforms to airlines.

And, said R.W. Mann & Co. consultant Bob Mann, if the FAA does, in fact, set baselines below the current industry standard, it could have the consequence of tempting carriers to tighten pitch even further. After all, they'd be able to cite the new FAA standard as justification.

I, too, see that as a potential pitfall of Congress' new mandate. For all the complaints that circulate broadly about how uncomfortable flying has become, consumers repeatedly and consistently have voted with their wallets for cheap seats, as the healthy profit margins enjoyed by Frontier and Spirit in recent years attest.

There's probably a tipping point of discomfort at which that dynamic flips, but is less than 28 inches of pitch that tipping point? An airline might want to test that question. Still, even if the FAA doesn't set seat width and pitch baselines below the current industry standard, the agency's stated positions make any meaningful upward revision of those standards unlikely.

For Congress, the seat size mandate it placed on the FAA as part of the reauthorization bill has been a big public relations win. For flyers, it probably won't matter much at all.

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