Aviation regulators were ordered by a federal appeals court on Friday to consider setting minimum standards for the space airlines give passengers as carriers have steadily shrunk the width of seats and the distance between rows.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., 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.
“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 passengershave been growing in size.”
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 rows to 30 inches on its newest Boeing Co. 737 jetliners.
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.
Flyers Rights had argued that the average seat width has narrowed from approximately 18.5 inches in the early-2000s to 17 inches in the early-to-mid-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 low as 28 inches at some airlines, the group said in the suit.
At the same time, the average American flier has grown steadily larger in both height and girth, the group said.
That combination created a safety hazard, it argued, making it more difficult to exit a plane in an emergency and also 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."
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.”
U.S. lawmakers have grilled members of the administration and airline executives on the issue at several hearings this year and several have drafted legislation to address the issue.