As air­line seats shrink, safety a reg­u­la­tory is­sue, court says

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - ALAN LEVIN

The U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the Dis­trict of Columbia Cir­cuit on Fri­day or­dered avi­a­tion reg­u­la­tors to con­sider set­ting min­i­mum stan­dards for the space air­lines give pas­sen­gers.

“This is the Case of the In­cred­i­ble Shrink­ing Air­line Seat,” Judge Pa­tri­cia Ann Mil­lett wrote on be­half of the three-judge panel. “As many have no doubt no­ticed, air­craft seats and the spac­ing be­tween them have been get­ting smaller and smaller, while Amer­i­can pas­sen­gers have been grow­ing in size.”

The court found in fa­vor of Fly­ers Rights, a non­profit

● ad­vo­cacy group, which had ar­gued that steadily shrink­ing legroom and seat size cre­ated a safety haz­ard and the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion should im­pose new re­stric­tions.

The is­sue of air­line pas­sen­ger legroom has boiled over this year as some car­ri­ers said they plan to add more seats to planes. Amer­i­can Air­lines in May an­nounced it would shrink the space be­tween most rows to 30 inches on its new­est Boe­ing Co. 737 Max jet­lin­ers, later drop­ping the move in the face of crit­i­cism from em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers.

Fly­ers Rights ar­gued that the av­er­age seat width has nar­rowed from ap­prox­i­mately 18.5 inches in the early-2000s to 17 inches in the early-to­mid-2010s. In re­cent decades, the dis­tance be­tween seat rows, known as “seat pitch,” has gone from an av­er­age of 35 inches to 31 inches, and as short as 28 inches at some air­lines, the group said in the suit.

While the FAA has con­tended its stan­dards for safely evac­u­at­ing an air­craft are ad­e­quate, U.S. law­mak­ers have grilled mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion and air­line ex­ec­u­tives on the is­sue at sev­eral hear­ings this year, and some have drafted leg­is­la­tion to ad­dress the is­sue.

The court said the FAA had used “off-point” stud­ies and “undis­closed tests us­ing un­known pa­ram­e­ters” to jus­tify

its ini­tial re­fusal to re­view the rules. “That type of va­porous record will not do,” the court said.

The com­bi­na­tion of less legroom and larger pas­sen­gers has cre­ated a safety haz­ard, Fly­ers Rights ar­gued, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to exit a plane in an emer­gency and height­en­ing the risk of deep vein throm­bo­sis, a po­ten­tially fa­tal con­di­tion of blood clots in the legs that has been as­so­ci­ated with longer flights.

“We’re re­ally grat­i­fied,” Paul Hudson, pres­i­dent of Fly­ers Rights, said in an in­ter­view. “We hope the FAA will now take it up as a proper rule­mak­ing.”

Air­lines for Amer­ica, a trade group for the large U.S. car­ri­ers, said in an email it was not in­volved in the suit and re­ferred to FAA for com­ment.

The FAA said in an emailed state­ment that the agency “does con­sider seat pitch in test­ing and as­sess­ing the safe evac­u­a­tion of com­mer­cial, pas­sen­ger air­craft. We are study­ing the rul­ing care­fully and any po­ten­tial ac­tions we may take to ad­dress the court’s find­ings.”

The long-term ef­fect of the court rules re­mains un­clear. It stopped short of or­der­ing FAA to cre­ate new rules, so the agency could con­duct a re­view and de­cide not to act.

In a state­ment last May, the agency said it had al­ready con­ducted evac­u­a­tion tests on the smaller seat con­fig­u­ra­tions to en­sure they are safe. The agency has no rules on seat width

or the dis­tance be­tween rows, re­ly­ing in­stead on the evac­u­a­tion stan­dards.

Af­ter Amer­i­can’s ini­tial an­nounce­ment it was short­en­ing the dis­tance be­tween seats, the agency said Boe­ing in 1998 suc­cess­fully per­formed evac­u­a­tion tests on the 737-400 with seats spaced 28 and 29 inches apart. As a re­sult, the agency had cer­ti­fied up to 189 pas­sen­gers aboard the 737 Max that Amer­i­can is buy­ing.

Even as emer­gency evac­u­a­tions have got­ten sig­nif­i­cantly safer in re­cent decades, a de­bate con­tin­ues to rage on how U.S. and other lead­ing avi­a­tion reg­u­la­tors around the world cer­tify the max­i­mum num­ber of pas­sen­gers al­lowed on an air­liner.

In part be­cause full-scale evac­u­a­tion tests have re­sulted in se­ri­ous in­juries, the FAA and other agen­cies have in some cases al­lowed man­u­fac­tur­ers to sub­sti­tute com­puter sim­u­la­tion and more lim­ited tests.

U.S. reg­u­la­tions re­quire that Boe­ing, Air­bus SE and other man­u­fac­tur­ers prove that a fully loaded plane can be evac­u­ated within 90 sec­onds with half the ex­its blocked and in low light­ing con­di­tions.

Hudson, who has served on var­i­ous FAA ad­vi­sory pan­els in re­cent decades, has ar­gued that the FAA’s re­quire­ments aren’t ad­e­quate to pro­tect safety. In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by An­drew Har­ris, Michael Sasso and Mary Sch­langen­stein of Bloomberg News.

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