FAA’s de­ci­sion won’t quash dis­pute over air­plane seat sizes

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BUSI­NESS - By Elaine Glusac NEW YORK TIMES

Let the arm­rest el­bow wars con­tinue. This past week, in re­sponse to a fed­eral ap­peals court case, the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced it will not reg­u­late the size of seats on air­planes, de­spite con­sumer com­plaints about com­fort and ques­tions about safety.

The non­profit ad­vo­cacy group Fly­er­sRights.org had filed a pe­ti­tion with the U.S. Court of Ap­peals in the Dis­trict of Co­lum­bia re­quest­ing the FAA es­tab­lish guide­lines for seat di­men­sions; it noted the dis­com­fort of shrink­ing seats and the po­ten­tial dan­ger for plane evac­u­a­tions caused by nar­row rows.

Though the agency re­quires that all planes must be evac­u­ated in case of emer­gency in 90 sec­onds, it claimed, in its Mon­day let­ter to Fly­er­sRights.org an­nounc­ing its de­ci­sion, “that seat width and pitch, even in com­bi­na­tion with in­creas­ing pas­sen­ger size, do not ham­per the speed of an evac­u­a­tion.”

The agency re­lies on pas­sen­ger evac­u­a­tion sim­u­la­tions that are run and filmed by air­plane man­u­fac­tur­ers when form­ing its con­clu­sions. But Paul Hud­son, a lawyer and the pres­i­dent of Fly­er­sRights.org, said the drills did not in­clude chil­dren, the el­derly, in­firm or obese — pas­sen­gers likely to slow down an evac­u­a­tion.

“Seats have got­ten smaller and peo­ple have got­ten big­ger,” Hud­son said, not­ing that seat pitch — the dis­tance from one seat back to the next — was 31 to 35 inches in the 1970s. Now it’s down to as low as 28 on low-cost car­ri­ers like Spirit Air­lines. Seat width, he added, was about 18.5 inches, and is now 17 to 17.5 inches.

Con­cur­rently, Amer­i­cans have gained weight. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, the rate of obe­sity in the U.S. is nearly 38 per­cent, up from 15 per­cent in 1980. Seventy per­cent of adults are cur­rently over­weight, ver­sus about 45 per­cent in 1960.

Newer, slim­mer air­craft seats mean that pas­sen­gers haven’t en­tirely lost a com­men­su­rate amount of legroom. But trav­el­ers aren’t hal­lu­ci­nat­ing when they say con­di­tions are cramped. Amer­i­can Air­lines, for one, re­treated on its plans last year to re­duce pitch in some econ­omy sec­tions from 31 to 29 inches on its newer jets.

As doc­u­men­ta­tion sup­port­ing its con­clu­sion, the FAA added sev­eral video clips from air­line man­u­fac­tur­ers show­ing their suc­cess­ful evac­u­a­tion tests to the case docket.

“The FAA also has no ev­i­dence that cur­rent seat sizes are a fac­tor in evac­u­a­tion speed, nor that cur­rent seat sizes cre­ate a safety is­sue ne­ces­si­tat­ing rule­mak­ing, be­cause the time to stand up from one’s seat is less than the time it will take for the exit door to be opened and, for most pas­sen­gers, for the aisle to clear,” wrote Dorenda Baker, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for avi­a­tion se­cu­rity at the FAA, in the let­ter.

Crit­ics say the tests do not re­flect real-world sce­nar­ios on planes filled with di­verse ages, sizes and states of dress, nor do they cap­ture the panic in­evitable in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion.

“In real life, peo­ple are in heels or bare­foot or in flip-flops, and grab­bing their own stuff from the bins or un­der the seats,” said Erin E. Bowen, a pro­fes­sor and the chair of the be­hav­ior and so­cial sci­ences depart­ment at Em­bry-Rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Uni­ver­sity in Prescott, Ariz.

“In a real ac­ci­dent, peo­ple will panic and they will freeze,” Bowen said, “and that is very dif­fer­ent than the ex­per­i­ments they are run­ning.”

Even if the seat ar­range­ments are deemed safe, the is­sue of seat size is un­likely to go away. Fly­er­sRights.org plans to file a re­sponse to the FAA later this month.

Sug­gest­ing per­sonal space could be­come a com­pet­i­tive is­sue among air­lines, Delta Air Lines, an­nounc­ing its newly ren­o­vated 777 air­craft this week, noted its econ­omy seats are 18.5 inches wide and that the main cabin has nine seats abreast ver­sus 10 across in­stalled by com­peti­tors.

Bill Mont­gomery / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle file

“Seats have got­ten smaller and peo­ple have got­ten big­ger,” says Paul Hud­son, pres­i­dent of Fly­er­sRights.org. That com­bi­na­tion, Hud­son ar­gues, is dan­ger­ous if a plane must be evac­u­ated.

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