A Congressional mandate for the FAA to set minimum standards for seat width and pitch passed 22 months ago. But the agency still isn't saying when it will move forward with those regulations.
Congress told the FAA to set the minimum standards for seat width and pitch, the industry parlance for the spacing between rows, as part of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act. The standards are to be based upon what is "necessary for the safety and health of passengers."
The FAA last November conducted a series of evacuation tests designed to inform its decision on aircraft cabin configurations. Under existing rules, aircraft must be able to be evacuated in 90 seconds or less. But the agency has not updated its evacuation assessment standards since 1990. Since then, airlines have increased the number of seats on planes, squeezing rows closer together in the process.
In response to recent inquiries, an FAA spokesperson said that the agency "expects to have results from the evacuation testing by the end of the calendar year."
In a 2019 Wheels Up column, aviation editor Robert Silk examined the DOT's missed deadlines.
But the agency provided no estimate on when it would come forward with the proposed seat width and pitch regulations. The FAA also provided no explanation as to why the process is taking so long and didn't answer a question about whether the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted its progress.
The pandemic, though, has the potential to complicate the process, since the FAA is under mandate to consider health considerations in setting the minimums. However, any impact is unclear, since no reasonable standards could comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing.
The FAA declined to address a question about whether the pandemic has forced it to reconsider how it thinks about safety as it develops the regulations.
Meanwhile, an audit by the DOT's Office of Inspector General (OIG) on the FAA's oversight of aircraft evacuation procedures could be completed soon.
The OIG office began in the audit in June 2018 at the behest of Congressional Democrats; it is examining whether denser cabin configurations are affecting evacuation times.
In May 2019, the OIG's office said it would complete the audit last fall. However, that timeframe came and went. An OIG spokesman this week said the final report is on track for delivery by late September.