WASHINGTON (CN) – The Federal Aviation Administration must go back to the drawing board to address what one appeals court judge on Friday called “The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat.”
In 2015, Paul Hudson, president of consumer advocacy nonprofit the Flyers Rights Education Fund, asked the FAA to issue rules setting minimum size requirements for seats on commercial airlines.
Hudson made the request after noticing that the space between airplane seats, or seat pitch, has drastically decreased over the last several decades. His research determined that economy seat pitch went from 35 inches in the 1970s to as low as 28 inches today, according to a ruling issued Friday by a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit.
Since the 1960s, Hudson claimed, “the average American flyer had grown steadily larger in height and girth.” His group expressed its concern that with a decrease in size of seating, the risk to the health and safety of passengers onboard drastically increased.
From being unable to properly move around in emergency conditions or being squished in a small seat for so long that the threat of fatal blood clots becomes palpable, Hudson argued for regulations and petitioned the FAA for a ban on any further reductions in seat size, width, pitch, padding or aisle width until a final rule is issued.
In 2016, the FAA denied the petition, saying it conducted emergency tests with 28- and 29-inch seat pitches and found no danger.
The agency noted that the nonprofit’s concerns over passenger health were “irrespective of the seat pitch” and that it found problems like fatal blood clots in the leg, also called deep vein thrombosis, to be rare.
“[Deep vein thrombosis] can occur with ‘any long duration seated activity’…and its risks are ‘the same for economy-class and business-class,’” the FAA said in its denial of Flyers Rights’ petition.
But on Friday, the D.C. Circuit knocked back the FAA’s denial and ordered the agency to produce “a properly reasoned disposition of the petition’s safety concerns.”
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Patricia Millett – who opened her opinion by calling the dispute “the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat” – rejected the FAA’s position that seat size had no effect on deplaning in an emergency.
Millett also noted that the FAA failed to cite any studies or tests to corroborate its decision.
“When the administration responds to a petition for rulemaking that exposes a plausible life and death safety concern, the administration must reasonably address that risk in its response. The administration failed that task here,” the ruling states.
The FAA argued that the omissions in its research on seat dimensions and safety occurred because “seat dimensions are categorically unimportant to emergency egress.”
Millett responded directly.
“That makes no sense,” she wrote, rejecting the FAA’s argument. “Tests generally require a limited number of variables to be workable and verifiable… Take, for example, a study on tooth decay that only recorded participants’ sugar consumption. The study’s silence on the question of brushing and flossing would surely not imply that brushing and flossing have no effect on the risk of getting a cavity.”
Millett was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Cornelia Pillard and Judith Rogers.
The FAA did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.