Judge Orders FAA to Review the ‘Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat’

Passenger advocacy group scores a win in the ongoing effort to regulate commercial airplane seat size.

Airplane Seats
The FAA has been ordered by a D.C. Circuit Court to consider a petition from Flyers Rights to set a specific minimum size for commercial airline seats.Pexels

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that the FAA must acknowledge “the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat.” That’s how Circuit Judge Patricia Millett referred to the obvious state of uncomfortable commercial airline travel in response to a lawsuit filed by the passenger advocacy group Flyers Rights earlier this year.

The ruling is a mild victory for Flyers Rights, but it's a victory nonetheless. The FAA is now obligated to review the organization's petition "to place a moratorium on shrinking seat sizes and to create seat size standards."

However, that still doesn’t mean that the FAA has to do something about small seats. After all, more seats mean more profits for airlines — something that some lawmakers have said is no excuse — but this ruling at least puts the pressure on the FAA to give Flyers Rights valid evidence that current seat sizes are actually safe, instead of offering vague evidence and a cold shoulder.

In March, the FAA presented its case to the three-judge appeals panel that smaller seat sizes do not put passengers at risk; however, the agency refused to offer concrete evidence that backed up such claims. Instead, the FAA's lawyers argued that any proof is confidential airline information. The court disagreed.

"Paul Hudson and the Flyers Rights group became concerned that this sharp contraction in passenger seating space was endangering the safety, health, and comfort of airline passengers. So they petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to promulgate rules governing size limitations for aircraft seats to ensure, among other things, that passengers can safely and quickly evacuate a plane in an emergency," Millett wrote.

“The Administration denied the petition, asserting that seat spacing did not affect the safety or speed of passenger evacuations. To support that conclusion, the Administration pointed to (at best) off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters. That type of vaporous record will not do — the Administrative Procedure Act requires reasoned decisionmaking grounded in actual evidence. Accordingly, we grant the petition for review in part and remand to the Administration.”

The ruling isn’t a total loss for the FAA, though. Another point that Flyers Rights argued was that the FAA had to consider passenger health and the relationship between seat size and issues like blood clots, deep vein thrombosis, and various joint and muscle issues. On this, the court ruled that the FAA is doing its part.

"The problem for Flyers Rights is that, in this case, the Administration acknowledged its authority to protect the health of passengers, stating that it would 'continue to monitor seat designs and effects on safety and health,'" the ruling reads, with the emphasis on "health" included. "The Administration thus did not decline to regulate the types of circulatory harms identified by Flyers Rights because it thought it could not address such matters. Rather, the Administration decided that it should not address those issues at this time, making the very type of regulatory-effort and resource-allocation judgments that fall squarely within the agency's province."

Furthermore, the judges ruled that the FAA provided sufficient evidence in regard to the concerns over blood clots and deep vein thrombosis, while ailments like “soreness, stiffness, [and] other joint and muscle problems” are “commonplace, temporary, and non-lifethreatening discomforts.”

Tall passengers and long-legged travelers shouldn't lose hope, though. The Senate's FAA reauthorization bill, which has been hailed by the GA community for excluding ATC privatization, features Rep. Steve Cohen's (D-TN) amendment to regulate commercial airline seat size. Based on the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act, Cohen's amendment will "require the FAA to establish a minimum seat size on commercial airlines as well as a minimum distance between rows of seats to protect the safety and health of airline passengers," should the Senate's bill pass.

"I am pleased the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee recognized the serious safety and health concerns of shrinking airplane seats and passed this amendment to determine how small is too small," Cohen said last week. "The SEAT Act will help ensure that reduced seat sizes on planes do not impede on the capability of rapid evacuation in case of emergency as longstanding federal law requires. Emergency evacuation is a serious issue, as is the potential for air rage as tensions mount inside more tightly packed cabins. In addition, doctors have warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who do not move their legs enough during longer flights."