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A Court Just Ordered the Government to Do Something About Smaller Airlines Seats

If you've ever contorted yourself into a cramped, legroom-lacking airline seat and wondered "have these gotten smaller?" you're not alone. And now, a federal court is addressing the safety implications of your question.

On Friday, a panel of judges on the United States District Court for Washington D.C. ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to address a petition filed by Flyers Rights, an advocacy group concerned with how smaller airline seats affect passenger safety and health.

Labeling it at one point as "the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat," the court found that the FAA had not properly responded to the charges alleged in the petition, and had to "adequately address" how airline seat sizes and legroom potentially affect customer safety.  

The FAA extensively regulates airplane cabin design, but gives seat size and width little consideration, except that planes must be designed in a way that allows passengers and crew to evacuate within 90 seconds, the amount of time it takes for a standard airplane cabin to be fully engulfed in flames. 

Flyers Rights charged that because airline seats had gotten both closer together and smaller over the past few decades, with flights carrying heaver loads of passengers than ever, emergency egress from airplanes was hampered to the point that a safe evacuation was no longer a guarantee.

 

Beyond that, they claimed that passengers had less room to move around, increasing the risk of deep vein thrombosis, a condition where blood clots develop in the legs due to lack of movement.

The FAA had initially denied their petition, claiming that seat size and closeness has no effect on safety, that the size of seats are is not a high priority for them, and that  "modern, thinner seats ... provide more space than older seats," according to the court ruling. But the court found that the FAA had failed to demonstrate that seat size has no relation to evacuation time, and had used studies that never even addressed the issue.

Data from both the Flyers Rights petition and other sources corroborates the group's charges. Airline seats have seen profound reductions in seat width, armrest size, legroom, and the distance between rows of seats. With smaller seats crammed closer together, airlines can fit more passengers on flights, meaning more people are squirming around in less space.

According to data reported by USA Today, the distance between seats in one row to the next, known as "seat pitch," has decreased dramatically in the last two decades for every major U.S. carrier. Depending on the flight, United has lost between two to five inches of legroom since the 1980s, and American has lost three inches just since 2002. And seat pitch is even worse for regional airlines, with Spirit having just a little over two feet between seats.

Airline seats are also smaller now than they've been in decades. In the 1980s, airline seats were about 20 inches wide, on average. Today, they average between 17 and 18 inches. Meanwhile, USA Today also reported that even back in 2002, the average American's hip width was 20.6 inches. And today, airline passengers are heavier than ever. As USA Today's analysis put it, "the roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation's four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s."

While measures have come up in Congress to force the FAA to regulate seat pitch and width, they've all failed after coming to a vote, most recently in the Senate last year. It's also important to note that the ruling doesn't mandate that the FAA has do anything to increase seat size, only to examine its effect on safety. They are also free to deny the petition again, after giving it the consideration the court required.