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Consumer group pushes FAA to stop airplane seats from shrinking

Oct. 6, 2022 Updated Thu., Oct. 6, 2022 at 4:20 p.m.

By Lori Aratani Washington Post

An airline passengers’ rights group announced Thursday that it filed a petition with the Federal Aviation Administration seeking to force the agency to regulate the size of airplane seats.

In the petition, addressed to FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen, FlyersRights says the FAA has failed to carry out Congress’s direction to set minimum standards for the size of airplane seats as called for in the 2018 bill that reauthorized funding for the agency. It requests that the agency implement standards for seat sizes by July after “an appropriate public comment period.”

Until then, the petition states, the FAA should issue a moratorium barring airlines from further reducing their seat sizes.

“At some point, seat pitch, seat width and other seat dimensions will be too small … it will harm passenger health and safety,” the group wrote. “Refusing to set minimum standards to protect passenger safety and health would be ignoring reality and is no longer acceptable.”

The FAA has declined to take such action, saying that unless the size of seats hampers passengers’ ability to evacuate an aircraft in 90 seconds, it won’t intervene. The agency has pointed to emergency exercises it conducted in 2019 that showed seat sizes had no effect on participants’ ability to evacuate an aircraft.

The FAA did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday on the group’s petition.

The agency has taken steps to assess public sentiment on the issue. In August, it began asking for feedback on whether minimum seat sizes were necessary for “passenger safety.” More than 12,000 individuals and organizations have left opinions, with comments accepted through Nov. 1.

The petition, filed Wednesday, is part of a yearslong effort by FlyersRights to stop airline seats from getting smaller, a trend it maintains heightens travelers’ risk for certain health conditions, including deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism, while hampering their ability to assume the proper brace position in the event of an emergency.

“Unfortunately, in the United States, the FAA has taken a very narrow view that it doesn’t really need to do anything,” said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights. “And it bases this view on a very narrow definition of their jurisdiction and what seat safety means. Under the FAA’s current policy, safety only affects emergency evacuation.”

The group is proposing that the FAA mandate that seat width be a minimum of 20.1 inches and seat pitch – the distance from one point in a seat to the same point in a seat in front or behind it – be a minimum of 32 inches.

Hudson said those dimensions would accommodate 90 to 92 percent of travelers, who according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are about 30 pounds heavier than in the 1960s, on average.

On many airlines, the width of seats ranges from 17 to 18.5 inches. The pitch is about 31 inches, though on some carriers it is 28 inches.

The FAA will have six months to accept or reject the petition.

The group also appeared before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last month, arguing that the court needed to compel the FAA to issue a rule on seat-size dimensions.

At the hearing, the agency offered a different interpretation of Congress’s intent in the 2018 measure. An attorney for the FAA said the intent of the legislation was not to set standards for seat size, but to “get information from the public to take a fresh look at the connection between seat dimensions and passenger safety.”

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