Regulating size of airline seats gaining support

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Photo Credit: IvanRiver/Shutterstock

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 regulations.

"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 evacuation times.

"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 court.

"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 opinion.

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 said.

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 skies."

Even so, there are signs that airlines are willing to make some accommodation in response to growing pressure from lawmakers and consumers.

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 committee.

"We're on a path," he said. "No matter what, that's a good thing."

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