FAA Decides Against Airline Seat Size Regulation

The agency decided that airline seat sizes don't have a discernible effect on passenger safety.



Cramped airline seats might be uncomfortable, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has decided they're not unsafe. Therefore, the agency concludes, they're no business of the federal government.

Following a petition from a consumer advocacy group called Flyers Rights, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled last July that the FAA must justify its reasoning for not regulating the size of seats. In its response, the agency said "no evidence…demonstrates that current seat dimensions (width and pitch) hamper the speed of passenger evacuation."

"The FAA has no evidence that a typical passenger, even a larger one, will take more than a couple of seconds to get out of his or her seat," the agency reports. Under FAA rules, planes must be capable of being evacuated within 90 seconds.

Flyers Rights is considering an appeal.

Opponents argue that the evacuation models employed by the airlines fail to consider atypical passengers, such as children, women in heels, and senior citizens. But regardless of seat size, these people will always take longer to evacuate a plane; making them more comfortable in the air will do little to save their lives in case of an emergency. Seats might be smaller than they were 40 years ago, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone unable to exit a plane because he gets stuck.

In fact, in the time that seats have shrunk, airplanes have gotten cheaper and safer. Airline casualties dropped 92 percent from 1972 to 2015 as the number of passengers carried by planes rose from a meager 310 million in 1970 to 3.2 billion in 2014. Meanwhile, ticket prices dropped drastically.

But it is true that airlines have been reducing the size of seats as part of an effort to get more passengers from place to place. According to Fortune, the average pitch (which is used to determine legroom) of airline seats has dropped from 35 inches to 31 inches, and the average width has fallen from 18 inches to about 16.5 inches since the 1970s.

In their original petition, Flyers Rights also insisted that passengers suffer from "soreness, stiffness, [and] other joint and muscle problems" because of the unergonomic seats offered by airline companies. They also noted the possibility of deep vein thrombosis, which can occur in people sitting for too long. Indeed, there are health risks to sitting for too long in one place, but those problems can equally strike a passenger on a Greyhound bus or riding a cross-country Amtrak train. Deep vein thrombosis, the DC Circuit Court recognized, "rarely occurs and, regardless, is not caused by seat size or spacing."

Coercing airlines to increase seat sizes might make passengers more comfortable, but airline companies would be forced to cut corners elsewhere to make up for the lost costs, perhaps by charging more for check-in baggage or even reversing the downward trend in ticket prices. Increasing costs could reduce access to travel for lower-income individuals.

And if you want a larger seat, you can have one. Market forces have already pushed Delta Airlines to introduce larger economy seats than its competitors. Competition is often the best form of regulation, and reducing barriers to entry into the airline industry would inject more producers into the marketplace, forcing producers to innovate or go bankrupt.

Few things are worse than being cramped between two oversized strangers on a 14-hour flight, dueling on two fronts for armrests and knee space. Believe me, I know: I fly from North Carolina to India five times a year. But I'd rather fly in a small seat to see my family than not be able to visit them at all.

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  1. Cramped airline seats might be uncomfortable, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has decided they’re not unsafe. Therefore, the agency concludes, they’re no business of the federal government.

    I’m stunned they ruled that way. It is the correct ruling…I’m just stunned hearing an agency say something isn’t their business.

    1. Yes. I reread a few times because I was so confused by the FAA choosing not to demand something.

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    3. The FAA has always been an outlier among government regulators. It started with their approach to crash investigations (find cause, not blame) and it’s continued ever since.

  2. Want larger seats on planes?

    Stop buying tickets. Force airlines to change.

    Buying the tickets is an indication that it is not a deal breaker.

    1. Or fly on other airlines, they are not all uniform in their sizes. I fly Alaska all the time, and they are nicer.

  3. Fives times a year?! What a son. I didn’t visit my family more than a couple times a year when I was an hour drive away.

  4. Take that, net neutrality!

  5. Ticket price may be down, but value is way down. Smaller seats, less room, more hops, longer waits, less friendly, higher fees. And how much are we subsidizing them some other way?

  6. I don’t think it’s the role of the gov’t to change it, but I do wish there was an option in the middle between Coach and First Class. Yes, I’m aware of the “Economy Plus” type offerings, and it’s nice that they offer more seat pitch distance front to back, but they don’t typically get any wider.

    The difference between Coach and First Class is like the difference between getting punched in the balls non-consentually, and getting a blow job that you want. And the price difference is like 10x, too.

    I’m a big guy. 6’5″, 270 lbs. Measured from deltoid to deltoid with my arms at my side, my shoulders are 25″ wide. The seat is 18″ wide. I’m just bigger than the seat is. There’s nothing I can do about it short of amputation.

    If I could pay just 2x as much, and get a seat that was wide enough to not force me to literally rub shoulders with my neighbor, I’d take it. As it is, with the massive disjunct between Coach and First Class, well, for the most part I just don’t fly, and when I do, I just accept the fact that the flight is going to be miserable for both myself and my neighbor(s).

    1. I don’t mean to distract from your frustration, but if you are willing to pay 2x as much for a wider seat, why don’t you just buy two adjoining seats? It’s literally what you are asking for, based on the criteria you listed.

      1. That’s not an unreasonable question.

        A.) I probably exaggerated the amount I was willing to pay. Realistically, I’d like to have the option to pay perhaps 1.5x, and get a seat that was just a few inches wider. But you’re completely right, if I really was willing to pay 2x, just buying two seats would be the way to go.

        B.) Sitting in the middle of two seats isn’t nearly as comfortable as sitting in one wider seat. Also, legally, you can’t just “sit in the middle” of the two seats for at least take off and landing, because you can’t be buckled in there. And obviously, you can’t recline the two seats together properly, because the armrest will be in the middle of your back. So functionally, it becomes, “buy two seats, sit your butt in one, and lean over to the side for the whole flight to keep from either leaning on the guy next to you, or leaning into the aisle, or being squashed up against the window.”


        To some extent, I’m just bitching, now. 😉

    2. “I just accept the fact that the flight is going to be miserable for both myself and my neighbor(s).”

      Look on the bright side. You could take solace in the fact that, in your shared miserableness, you’re getting more than you paid for while your neighbor has to be satisfied with getting less.

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