Federal Courts Are Considering Whether FAA Has To Mandate Bigger Airline Seats

A consumer group, Flyers Rights, is seeking to have the courts compel the FAA to impose minimum seat size standards. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard this argument today.

The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act called for the FAA to set standards. The government says that the broad authority of the FAA to promte safety controls, and to the extent these standards aren’t needed for safety then no such standards should be promulgated. This summer the FAA began taking public comments on the need for seat size standards for safety reasons. This was broadly misreported as a need for seat size standards and most people who want rules want more space – not necessarily for safety (e.g. evacuation) reasons.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The major U.S. airlines don’t offer less than 30 inches of “pitch” or the distance from seat back to seat back.

  • Frontier and Spirit Airlines both go as low as 28 inches.

  • If federal courts push the FAA to impose seat size rules, we’re not going to see changes to seat width. There’s really been no reduction in width on narrowbody aircraft. Boeing 737s, for instance, have been 3-abreast for decades.

Instead what most travelers – since most travelers are domestic travelers – will see is either:

  • No change. The FAA sets minimum seat size equal to status quo seat size, requiring at least 28 inches of pitch (or less).

  • 29 or 30 inch pitch required. That has zero effect on Delta, United, American or Southwest. Instead it affects only the business models of the ultra-low cost carriers.
  • Some widebody aircraft, squeezing 10-abreast on Boeing 777s or 9-abreast on 787s, squeeze about half an inch of width out of seats compared to Boeing’s narrowbody planes. It is highly unlikely that the FAA would overrule these seating configurations, which also tend to offer an inch more legroom.

    Instead, with regulations that potentially encroach on Spirit and Frontier, major airlines will face Less competition from low cost carriers. The government would be outlawing their business model. That would mean higher prices for the majority of passengers who are flying on mainline airlines on routes which face low cost carrier competition.

    Spirit Airlines is even poised to be acquired by JetBlue and JetBlue has said they will retrofit Spirit planes to match their interiors. If the merger closes, there will be fewer planes operating at bare minimum legroom – no regulation required. If what you want is to eliminate a chunk of the tightest airline legroom in one swoop, you should favor the federal government getting out of the way of this merger (anti-trust review).

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