photo - Jim Flynn - Business (2013)
Jim Flynn - Business (2013) 

If you've suffered through a commercial airline flight recently, you may have concluded the old expression "everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it" also applies to air travel.

But that's not true. Flyers Rights Education Fund Inc., a nonprofit devoted to the rights of airline passengers (www.flyersrights.org), has been nipping at the heels of the Federal Aviation Administration, demanding it establish rules about seat size and spacing.

Flyers Rights argues that shrinking seat size and spacing, coupled with a steady increase in the girth of airline passengers, is creating a serious safety hazard due to the inability of passengers to quickly exit an aircraft during an emergency.

In its request to the FAA, Flyers Rights pointed out that, since the early 2000s, the distance between airline seats has decreased to an average of 31 inches from 35 inches, and seat width has narrowed by roughly an inch and a half.

Flyers Rights also said that from 1960 to 2002, the average weight of adult men increased by 25 pounds, to 191 pounds, and the average weight of adult women increased by 24 pounds, to 164 pounds.

The FAA rejected Flyers Rights' request, stating it had conducted tests of emergency evacuation times, and no problem existed. So, it would not use its limited resources to regulate seat size and spacing.

Flyers Rights found this response inadequate and sued the FAA, asking the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to review the agency's response.

The court ruled July 28, with this memorable first line: "This is the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat."

Although the court repeatedly noted the broad authority given administrative agencies to govern their own affairs, in this case it found the FAA's response deficient. Of concern to the court was the emergency evacuation tests the FAA said it was relying on did not address seat dimensions and spacing. Said the court: "Studies cannot corroborate or demonstrate something that they never mention or even indirectly address."

The FAA responded by arguing that its emergency evacuation tests had involved seat sizes even smaller than what airlines are now using. However, the FAA refused to give any details about these tests, saying the information was proprietary. This also didn't sit well with the court. Said the court: "(T)hat is not how judicial review works. We cannot affirm the sufficiency of what we cannot see."

In the end, the court sent Flyers Rights' request back to the FAA for further review. This could either lead to the FAA undertaking a comprehensive analysis of the effect of seat size and spacing on airline safety, as Flyers Rights has wanted, or to again deny Flyers Rights' request, this time supported by fully disclosed tests and data.

Also of note, last year the House and Senate rejected measures that would have required the FAA to establish minimum seat size standards. Similar legislation was resurrected in March but has yet to come up for a vote.

The court's opinion in this case made one other matter clear. Although the FAA has broad responsibility for airline safety, it has no responsibility for passenger comfort.

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