FAA Faces Renewed Pressure to Stop the Shrinking of Seat Sizes on Commercial Airplanes

Lawmakers and rights advocates accuse the agency of allowing airlines to put profit above passenger safety.

Airline seats
The bipartisan SEAT Act has been reintroduced with the hopes of forcing the FAA to set a standard size for commercial airline seats.Pexels

A bipartisan crusade to get airline passengers a little more legroom continued last week with the reintroduction of the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. The act was first introduced in 2016 as an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization bill; however, Congress failed to pass it.

The bill is a renewed effort to force the FAA to set a specific minimum seat size on commercial airplanes, as Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and his colleagues claim it is no coincidence that airline profits are rising while seat size is decreasing.

"Shrinking seat sizes in airplanes isn't just a matter of comfort but the safety and health of passengers as well," Cohen wrote in a joint statement with the bill's co-sponsors. "Planes need to be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency. In addition, doctors have warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who do not move their legs enough during longer flights. The safety and health of passengers must come before airline profits."

Just as he wrote when the SEAT Act was rejected in 2016, Senator Charles Schumer is also standing up for commercial passengers who are fed up with vanishing leg space.

“The number one complaint I hear from travelers is shrinking legroom and cramped seats,” Schumer wrote. “Consumers are tired of being packed into airplanes like sardines while the airlines are cruising on record profits thanks to consolidation and super-low fuel prices. It’s just plain unfair that a person gets charged for extra legroom inches that were once standard. Congress should pass the bipartisan SEAT Act, which will finally require a standard for seat size and legroom on airlines.”

While the SEAT Act's co-sponsors renewed their efforts to implement action ahead of a new reauthorization bill, the FAA was stating its case in a U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In February 2016, the passengers rights group Flyers Rights petitioned the FAA to do right by weary travelers and set the standard for seat size. The FAA denied that petition and so Flyers Rights filed a lawsuit.

Last Friday, the FAA made its case before the three-judge appeals panel. The agency says it doesn’t believe that seat size poses a threat to passenger safety. Currently, the FAA allows for airlines to fit as many seats as they want into planes, so long as passengers, in the event of an emergency, can evacuate in 90 seconds. The attorney representing Flyers Rights argued that the FAA has provided no proof that passengers can evacuate safely, but the FAA’s lawyers argued that the proof is confidential airline information that cannot be made public.

While Cohen, Schumer and their colleagues continue to fight for the passage of the SEAT Act, the fate of Flyers Rights’ appeal is in the hands of the appeals judges.