In the current atmosphere of amped-up scrutiny of the U.S.
airline industry, lawmakers have begun taking a more favorable view of
regulating aircraft seat sizes and seating configurations.
Now, advocates say, a recent federal appeals court ruling
could serve to further galvanize Congress' newfound support for such
"There have been ostriches among my colleagues. This
will help them bring their heads out of the sand," Rep. Steve Cohen
(D.-Tenn.) told Travel Weekly. Cohen has been a leading congressional proponent
of setting minimum standards for seat widths and for the space between rows,
known as pitch.
On July 28, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of
Appeals ordered the FAA to review seat sizes and pitch on commercial aircraft
to make sure that ever-tightening configurations don't affect emergency
"This is the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline
Seat," Judge Patricia Millett wrote in her opinion. "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."
The ruling stemmed from a request that the consumer advocacy
group Flyers Rights made for the FAA to set standards for seat width and pitch.
The FAA rejected the request in 2015, asserting that
aircraft makers have passed required safety certification tests for planes with
seat dimensions and maximum occupancies used by today's commercial airlines.
But the FAA hasn't released the results of those tests,
citing the proprietary rights of the manufacturers. That decision troubled the
"The problem here is that the administration has given
no reasoned explanation for withholding the tests in their entirety, and it has
declined to file them under seal or in redacted form," Millett wrote in her
In a statement, the FAA said it considers seat pitch in
testing and assessing safe evacuation of airliners.
"We are studying the ruling carefully and any potential
actions we may take to address the court's findings," an agency spokesman
According to Cohen, the average pitch on an economy U.S.
airline seat has shrunk from 35 inches in the 1970s to 31 inches today. Jason
Rabinowitz, data research manager for the flight amenities website Routehappy,
agrees with that assessment, but he noted that airlines are also moving toward
slim-lined seats, which can allow for more legroom per inch than do the thicker
seats found in older-model jetliner interiors.
Spirit and Frontier offer the smallest pitches in the
industry, at 28 inches.
As for seat widths, Rabinowitz said they haven't changed
significantly in recent years with the exception of some carriers' Boeing 777s,
on which they have squeezed widths from 18.5 inches to 17.5 inches to allow for
the installation of 10 seats per row rather than nine.
Among U.S. carriers, only United and Hawaiian are flying
aircraft with seats narrower than 17 inches, according to the website SeatGuru.
In a brief filed with the appellate court, the FAA asserted,
"Full-scale evacuation tests on widely used airplanes have been
successfully conducted at 28- and 29-inch pitch." The FAA doesn't conduct
such tests, it noted. Aircraft manufacturers do. But FAA observers witness each demonstration.
The court decided that was not enough, especially in light
of incomplete public disclosure of such tests.
But even as the FAA considers how to respond to the ruling,
lawmakers are considering taking their own action.
Both the House and Senate versions of this year's FAA
reauthorization bills include a provision directing the agency to take action
on aircraft pitch with an eye toward evacuation safety. The Senate bill calls
for a review of minimum pitch standards within 18 months, while the House bill
calls for a minimum to be set within 12 months. The House bill also calls for
the establishment of a minimum seat width.
Last year, measures to regulate seat size failed in both
houses as Congress worked on FAA reauthorization.
To avert a funding disruption, Congress must either pass
this year's reauthorization by Sept. 30 or extend the current authorization. An
extension is considered more likely.
In an email last
week, Airlines for America (A4A) spokesman Vaughn Jennings voiced the trade
organization's continued opposition to regulating seat size.
"The FAA has affirmed that all U.S. carriers meet or
exceed federal safety standards, and we continue to believe that there is no
need for government to interfere with the market-driven solutions that are
delivering a better and safer flight experience for everyone who takes to the
Even so, there are signs that airlines are willing to make
some accommodation in response to growing pressure from lawmakers and
Cohen said that this year A4A agreed to back off in its
opposition to the House language calling for pitch and seat size regulations as
long as tougher measures weren't included. That's a major reason that the House
Transportation Committee included the measure in the bill this year.
Meanwhile, in June, American Airlines canceled plans to
offer just 29 inches of pitch on three rows of its incoming Boeing 737 Max
aircraft, citing negative feedback from customers and employees. Twenty-nine
inches would have been the least pitch offered in any cabin row by any of the
three legacy U.S. carriers, American, Delta or United.
Flyers Rights president Paul Hudson said that while he is
pleased with his side's momentum in the debate over regulating aircraft seating
configurations, he would prefer the House and Senate bills to be stronger.
The FAA, he said, frequently doesn't comply with deadlines
given by Congress to conduct regulatory reviews. And in the current climate, in
which new regulatory processes have been frozen via White House executive
order, that's an especially likely outcome.
The bills, he said, should include default regulations in
case the FAA doesn't comply with the deadline. They should also prohibit
airlines from further shrinking seat sizes prior to the FAA review.
Cohen said such measures never would have passed out of
"We're on a path," he said. "No matter what,
that's a good thing."