If you fly coach often, you’ve experienced this: You’re in a window seat, and you’ve got to move toward the aisle to reach the lavatory. You contort around the knees of passengers in middle and aisle seats, while nudging seatbacks of the row in front of you to create an inch or two of clearance. Contort, nudge, apologize. It’s vexing — a reminder that flying coach can be the equivalent of steerage.
But is it also unsafe? Imagine a fire in the cabin. Shrinking legroom on airliners brings into question whether emergency evacuations are jeopardized by seats made smaller and smaller to maximize revenue for airlines. At what point does diminishing legroom elevate from a matter of comfort to a matter of safety?
A federal court believes it’s time to investigate whether we have reached that point. We’re chilling Champagne now.
Citing safety reasons, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to “adequately address” safety concerns associated with dwindling seat size and distances between rows. “As a matter of basic physics,” Judge Patricia Millett wrote, “at some point seat and passenger dimensions would become so squeezed as to impede the ability of passengers to extricate themselves from their seats and get over to an aisle.”
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the passenger advocacy group FlyersRights.org that seeks to force the FAA to put a hold on further shrinking of seats and legroom. Millett dubbed the suit “The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat.”
Thank you, Judge Millett. For you, two flutes of Champagne.
Though we squirm and fidget in shrinking seat space like everyone else, we’ve frowned on attempts to regulate the size of seats for the sake of making the experience of flying more comfortable. Ultimately, it’s up to the airlines to decide what level of comfort to provide, and it’s up to us to pay for more legroom or upgrade to a more comfy flying experience if we want it badly enough. This essentially is the bargain that has allowed basic airfares to plummet (as measured in inflation-adjusted dollars). Think of fares as user fees; the more airline resources we use, the more we pay.
However, if seat space and legroom get miniaturized to the point that safety is compromised, then we agree with Millett — the FAA has to step in.
The agency tried to convince the appeals court that it had indeed researched whether seat size and legroom needed to be regulated to facilitate evacuations. It cited studies and internal reviews that showed seat spacing had no impact on the ability of passengers to safely evacuate. But the court didn’t buy it, saying the FAA relied on irrelevant or outdated studies and tests in reaching its conclusions. For example, one study it cited had been done years ago, when airplane seats offered much more room. “That type of vaporous record will not do,” Millett wrote.
Millett ordered the FAA to take a second look at the issue of seat spacing, from the standpoint of safety. That shouldn’t be hard to do. Simulated evacuations can be done with current airliner seat configurations, and voila, the agency will have updated data that can serve as the basis for seat space and legroom rule-making. We’ve also suggested tarmac tests, maybe with volunteers trying to evacuate planes of different sizes and seat configurations. Toss in free pizza, and we’re, um, on board.
If that updated research shows that no changes to seat size and legroom are needed, then fine. We agree with the FAA that setting standards for comfort is none of government’s business. But we also agree with Millett that setting standards for safety is government’s business — and duty.