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The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat


“This is the case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat,” wrote a U.S. judge late last month. “As many have no doubt noticed, aircraft seats and the spacing between them have been getting smaller and smaller, while American passengers have been growing in size”.

These were the words of Judge Millett of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington DC. They were the closing words of a case in which the court ruled in favour of Flyers Rights, an advocacy group. They were arguing that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should impose new restrictions on seat size. They told the court such little legroom created a safety hazard.

The advocacy organisation provided some enlightening statistics. The average seat width has narrowed from about 47 centimetres in the early 2000s to above 43 centimetres in the mid 2000s. The length of space between seat rows has shrunk quite significantly.

The court also acknowledged the relevant safety hazards. Flyers Rights said that such little legroom can make it much more difficult to exit the plane in an emergency. They also argued that it elevated the risk of suffering Deep Vein Thrombosis.

The FAA do not really have rules on seat width or the distance between seats. Instead they have been relying on standards for evacuation. In May 2017, the FAA announced that they had been conducting such evacuation tests with smaller seats to make sure that they were safe. Several of the FAA tests, however, have led to injury. Computer simulation has replaced some of the tests.

American standards require aircraft manufacturers to demonstrate that a fully loaded plane can be evacuated in 90 seconds. Not only that – the tests also require half the exits blocked and the conditions to be low lighting. But arguably this is not enough. Some advisors opine that the FAA should still make rules on seat size and spacing. In August 2015, the FAA rejected a petition requesting such a move.

The Court said that the FAA tests are outdated. They rely on outdated studies when Americans were smaller and seats were larger. The judge did not prescribe a minimum seat pitch, but was a victory for the advocacy group.

Here at AvLaw Pty Ltd, we have specialists in airline safety and conduct audits and safety reviews for airlines. We work in airline risk assessments, and can ensure the seats of your aircraft comply with the relevant safety regulations you need to follow.

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