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The passenger outcry against shrinking airline seats in the economy cabin made some headway after a three-judge panel gave the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) six months to present documents backing up their claim that regulating seat size does not fall under its jurisdiction.
A consumer group called FlyersRights.org initiated "the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat” -- which is how US Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Millett refers to the case in the 23-page decision she wrote on July 28.
The group wanted the FAA to set size standards for passenger seats to prevent airlines from squeezing more people onto flights.FlyersRights argued that narrower seats and less space between rows in the economy cabin are safety risks that could hamper an evacuation.
Cramped seats also pose a health risk for passengers who could develop deep-vein thrombosis from being in a situation too tight for them to move, the group said.
The FAA sets evacuation standards for airlines to prove they can get everyone off a plane in 90 seconds in an emergency; however, the agency said it does not need to regulate seat size because it only takes the cabin layout into account when testing planes for evacuations.
USA TODAY reported that Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights, called the decision "a very rare reprimand” after the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit criticized the FAA for using “off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters” to support its argument that it should not regulate seat size.
The appeals panel heard the concerns from the consumer group, including one passenger who described climbing over seats to get out of a row, and another who said a plane could not have been evacuated in an emergency in less than 3 minutes.
FAA, in a statement on July 31, said that the agency is considering the ruling, as well as potential actions to deal with the findings. “The FAA does consider seat pitch in testing and assessing the safe evacuation of commercial, passenger aircraft,” it maintains.The FAA has 60 days to appeal the decision.
Since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the average pitch or distance between seats has dropped from 35 inches to 31 inches. Some airlines fly with as little as 28 inches between rows, according to FlyersRights.During the same period, the average 18-inch width of seats has dropped an inch or two, according to the group.
FlyersRights first asked FAA in August 2015 to block any further reduction in seat size until it could draft rules on minimum seat sizes “to ensure consumer safety, health, and comfort.” The FAA rejected that request, saying it had successfully run an emergency-evacuation test in 1998 with 550 occupants getting off a 777-300 in the dark.FAA has also tested evacuation with 29- and 28-inch pitches.
“The existing standards for evacuation time have been demonstrated to be safe,” FAA said in April 2016.