Science Supersedes Comfort in FAA Legal Battle

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Even the laws of economics are beholden to the laws of physics. A recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington came down on the side of a passenger advocate group when it came to seat size and airline safety. Judge Patricia Millett stated, “As a matter of basic physics, 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.”

It’s worth noting that the federal government does not intend to make demands from the FAA in areas other than passenger safety. The advocate group that took the FAA to court, FlyersRights.org, had sought requirements for the FAA that included putting a temporary stop on adjusting seat sizes and establishing regulations on seat size.

The organization cited statistics that included the average size and weight of airline passengers that failed to adjust for changing times. The average passenger size, according to airlines, is 5’10” and a healthy weight. Few fliers fill this description.

The advocate group pressed the FAA but the administration did not budge, denying the group’s request. FlyersRights.org then took the FAA to the Court of Appeals but did not win a large victory. The court decided that many of the organization’s complaints fell under the auspice of passenger comfort, not safety. The implication is that the federal government will not enforce regulations based on comfort. However the FAA’s safety records are lacking, with Judge Millett calling them outdated and vacuous.

The FAA did not turn over the studies which they claim justified the argument that seat size does not negatively impact the health or safety of passengers. Though FlyersRights.org claimed small seat size could result in higher rates of blood clots and other concerns, published scientific studies in the public domain do not support this claim. As for the claim that smaller seat size could result in higher loss of life during plane evacuations, the data does suggest a possibility. However the FAA says that according to its own, unpublished and inaccessible, studies smaller seat sizes are not hazardous.

Judge Millett ordered the FAA to conduct up-to-date and less “vacuous” studies but no deadline was made for enforcement. The issue of the “Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat” is far from over. Despite the court’s lack of a deadline, advocacy groups will still hold the FAA accountable.

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