The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

D.C. Circuit tackles 'the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat'


Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit tackled an issue of extreme importance to frequent travelers: the size of seats on airplanes. The court's opinion in Flyers Rights Education Fund v. FAA may produce some relief for those concerned about the loss of legroom (and decline in comfort) on commercial airlines.

The introduction of Judge Patricia Millett's opinion for the court explains the case:

This is the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat. 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. Paul Hudson and the Flyers Rights group became concerned that this sharp contraction in passenger seating space was endangering the safety, health, and comfort of airline passengers. So they petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to promulgate rules governing size limitations for aircraft seats to ensure, among other things, that passengers can safely and quickly evacuate a plane in an emergency. The Administration denied the petition, asserting that seat spacing did not affect the safety or speed of passenger evacuations. To support that conclusion, the Administration pointed to (at best) off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters. That type of vaporous record will not do-the Administrative Procedure Act requires reasoned decisionmaking grounded in actual evidence. Accordingly, we grant the petition for review in part and remand to the Administration.

The court's decision does not guarantee government regulation constraining the ability of airlines to shrink seats further, but it will require the FAA to adequately explain why the loss of legroom is (or is not) a safety concern. In the meantime, those who want extra legroom (and don't have elite status on the airlines they fly) will have to pay for it.