Judge de­cries the ‘Shrink­ing Air­line Seat’

FAA blasted for say­ing leg room is not a prob­lem

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - AVI SELK

If you’re con­vinced your plane seat gets smaller with each va­ca­tion, that your cramped knees and crushed hips are not just a func­tion of your ex­pand­ing girth, that you’re be­ing grad­u­ally and in­ten­tion­ally squished bit-by-bit like a slowly boiled frog as air­lines cram ever more chairs into their fuse­lages at the ex­pense of the peo­ple be­tween them, you can feel vin­di­cated.

A U.S. fed­eral court agrees that this is in­deed hap­pen­ing, and may be a prob­lem or even a dan­ger to life and pret­zel limb.

In a fiery rul­ing on Fri­day, an ap­peals court judge in Washington or­dered the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion to look into it what she called “the Case of the In­cred­i­ble Shrink­ing Air­line Seat.”

Judge Pa­tri­cia Mil­lett up­braided the FAA for “vac­u­ous” and “va­porous” ev­i­dence that the agency pre­vi­ously used to ar­gue that di­min­ish­ing leg room was not a prob­lem — or at least not its prob­lem.

It’s no se­cret that the big car­ri­ers have been shrink­ing seat space. CNN re­ported ear­lier this year that Amer­i­can Air­lines was pre­par­ing to retro­fit its fleet of Boe­ing 737 Max jets with less room for econ­omy fly­ers, for ex­am­ple.

United Air­lines was re­port­edly think­ing about do­ing like­wise, even as chair-re­lated hor­ror sto­ries scan­dal­ize the in­dus­try — like the woman who said her arm and leg went numb af­ter she was forced to squeeze her tod­dler into the seat she al­ready oc­cu­pied; or the man dragged from an air­plane when he re­fused to yield his few inches of fab­ric.

Plenty of peo­ple have com­plained about this, of course, from av­er­age fly­ers to mem­bers of Congress. In 2015, a large pas­sen­ger ad­vo­cacy group called Fly­er­sRights.org asked the FAA to put a stop to it with a for­mal pe­ti­tion.

The group as­sem­bled re­ports that the av­er­age seat width on an air­plane had shrunk at least an inch and a half since the early 2000s.

Mean­while, it ar­gued, the space be­tween you and who­ever is kick­ing the back of your econ­o­my­class seat had de­creased even more — to as few as 28 inches on some planes.

Air­line seats were de­signed for peo­ple no taller than five-foot-10, and in rea­son­ably good shape, Fly­er­sRights.org ar­gued, not­ing that “many Amer­i­cans do not fit into this cat­e­gory.”

Be­yond stiff limbs and sore joints, the group ar­gued, all this squish­ing cre­ates po­ten­tially fa­tal risks — namely blood clots in pas­sen­gers’ legs, and the pos­si­bil­ity that in an emer­gency they might not be able to quickly evac­u­ate the cramped con­fines of a mod­ern air­plane.

So the group asked the FAA to im­pose a mora­to­rium, pre­vent­ing air­lines from shrink­ing seats any more than they al­ready had while the agency pre­pared its first reg­u­la­tions on the is­sue. The FAA said no. As sum­ma­rized by the ap­peals court, the reg­u­la­tory agency came up with var­i­ous rea­sons to stay out of the seat-space wars.

Blood clots were un­likely to de­velop, the agency ar­gued, point­ing to stud­ies. And any­way, they were no more likely in coach than in first-class.

And mod­ern seats are thin­ner than they used to be, the FAA con­tended. So they might even be roomier than their ances­tor chairs, de­spite be­ing packed closer to­gether.

As for evac­u­a­tions, the FAA said it had looked into the mat­ter, ran its own tests, and all was well.

The court re­fused Fly­er­sRight.org’s re­quest that it or­der the FAA to set seat space rules. It merely or­dered the agency to come up with bet­ter ar­gu­ments against the group’s com­plaints — and not even all of their com­plaints.

The FAA had “rea­son­ably con­cluded that mat­ters per­tain­ing ex­clu­sively to pas­sen­ger ‘com­fort’ are not within its reg­u­la­tory wheel­house,” Judge Mil­lett wrote.

So to the sore, the stiff and the aching: too bad. Not the gov­ern­ment’s prob­lem. The court also agreed that blood clots didn’t ap­pear to have any­thing to do with seat size or spac­ing. It tossed out the health con­cerns, too. But when it came to emer­gency evac­u­a­tions — you know, those things a flight at­ten­dant re­minds you about be­fore ev­ery de­par­ture — the court agreed with Fly­er­sRights.org that the In­cred­i­ble Shrink­ing Air­line Seat might be a prob­lem.


In a fiery rul­ing on Fri­day, an ap­peals court judge or­dered the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion to look into the size of air­line seats.

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