FAA Must Review Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat

Are you finding yourself increasingly cramped in coach-class seats? You’re not alone.

The history of coach-class seating is a story of loss: the gradual loss of legroom, and comfort, as the airlines have shoehorned evermore seats into the same floor space, in their relentless pursuit of more: more revenue, and more profit.

Travelers of a certain age will recall when coach seat pitch — the industry measure of legroom — averaged close to 35 inches. Today, seat pitch averages 31 inches, with the likes of Spirit and Frontier squeezing their passengers into seats with just 29 inches of pitch. Compounding the discomfort, those shrinking seats have had to accommodate passengers whose average height and girth have been expanding.

It’s been a race to the bottom, with no bottom in sight.

In 2015, Flyersrights.org, a consumer-advocacy group, submitted a formal request to the FAA, proposing that the agency establish minimum standards for coach-seat legroom and seat width. The proposal was premised on the safety hazard posed by too-tight seats, which would make evacuation more difficult in the event of a crash or onboard fire.

The FAA rejected the proposal, arguing that there was no compelling proof that “crusher seats” posed a safety risk.

On July 28, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the FAA decision and sided with Flyersrights.org, noting that the FAA’s argument against seat-size rulemaking was based on “off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters.”

So, at least the FAA will be forced to re-review the Flyersrights.org petition. Whether that leads to a proposed rulemaking on seat size, or to yet another rejection, remains to be seen. But, at a minimum, the renewed focus on the issue is a positive for flyers, the great majority of whom travel in the increasing discomfort of coach.

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and almost that long writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

This article first appeared on SmarterTravel.com, where Tim is Editor-at-Large.

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