Why the government thinks shrinking airline seats are just fine

By | February 27th, 2016

If I’ve seen Melinda Ashton’s complaint once, I’ve seen it a hundred times.

“I’m a 6′ woman with long legs,” she says. “Even with the seat in front of me in an upright position, my knees are wedged. When the passenger in front of me reclines, the femurs on the ends of my legs are crushed into my hip sockets, causing considerable pain that continues after the flight ends.”

Ashton’s grievance is just one of many that I receive almost every day. She says on a recent American Airlines flight, she tried to buy an “extra” legroom seat — you know, the kind we used to have in economy class — but none were available.

“The metal bar on the seat pocket in front of me left deep dents and visible bruises on both knees that lasted for weeks. The bar itself could have caused blood clots, not to mention the inability to change position at all,” she says.

For people like Ashton — indeed, for all passengers, no matter their size — a group of advocates recently made a common-sense recommendation to the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the safety of aircraft. Why not set a minimum seat size?

The petition for a rulemaking, made by the advocacy group FlyersRights.org, was considered by the FAA and summarily rejected.

Surprised? Neither am I. But you might be interested in why the feds decided to decline this petition.

Let’s start with the request. Here’s the full document. (It’s worth a read because it contains some details FAA refers to in its response.)

Because of limited regulations on seats, airlines have decreased seat pitch and seat width in order to fit more passengers on each plane. In some instances, galleys have been removed as well.

This decrease in seat size, coupled with the safety, health and comfort of passengers, is the reason for this rulemaking petition. FlyersRights.org petitions FAA to

1) Exercise its discretionary rulemaking authority under 49 U.S.C. § 106, to impose, within 180 days, reasonable regulations setting maintenance standards and limiting the extent of seat size changes in order to ensure consumer safety, health, and comfort.

2) Issue an order within the next 45 days placing a moratorium on any further reductions in seat size, width, pitch, padding, and aisle width until a final rule is issued.

3) Appoint an advisory committee or task force to assist and advise the FAA in proposing seat and passenger space rules and standards, with such committee having broad representation of the various interests involved and expertise needed, to include this petitioner and representatives from other airline passenger advocacy organizations, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Center for Disease Control, and including at least one physician, ergonomic engineer, senior citizen, disabled air traveler, overweight person, disabled person, and at least six American air travelers representing a cross section of air travelers by age, height, weight, and gender.

Weeks later, FlyersRights.org received an answer from Dorenda Baker, the director of its aircraft certification office.

Related story:   US Airways charges family extra to sit together

Here’s its response:

We have determined the issues you raised do not meet the criteria to pursue rulemaking.

First, the issues you identify relate to passenger health and comfort, and do not raise an immediate safety or security concern.

The chief safety benefit you have proposed is an improvement in emergency evacuation. Your letter discusses perceived shortcomings with the FAA-required tests of airlines’ emergency evacuation plans; however, those are not the only evacuation tests required by the FAA.

We require full-scale evacuation demonstrations and analysis that set the limit for the maximum number of passengers for any given airplane model. These demonstrations occur prior to FAA certification of the airplane design. These demonstrations have interior configurations that are more critical (less seat pitch and higher number of passengers) than most configurations operated by the airlines. No airline configuration can exceed the number of passengers substantiated for evacuation.

You use the Boeing 777-300 as an example, implying the evacuation tests were not conducted with the maximum occupancy of 550 passengers. In 1998, The Boeing Company ran an emergency evacuation test of the 777-300 with 550 occupants, in dark conditions with half the exits randomly blocked and with debris in the aisles, and successfully met the 90-second evacuation limit. The existing standards for evacuation time have been demonstrated to be safe.

Your letter suggests that failed tests for evacuation capability can be repeated without determining the reason for a test failure. This is not the case. Failures must be identified and resolved before a test may be repeated. As this is part of the certification process requiring that applicants submit proprietary data, such reasons are not made public, but they are documented and resolved with the FAA.

Your letter also states that tests have not been run with seat pitch below 31 inches. This is also not the case. Full scale evacuation tests on widely used airplanes have been successfully conducted at 28- and 29-inch pitch, when substantiating the maximum occupancy. Seat pitch alone does not determine the amount of space available between seats. The seat design will play an important role. In general, modern, thinner seats at lower seat pitch provide more space than older seats did at higher pitch.

With respect to the potential for deep vein thrombosis, it is medically advisable to periodically move around on a long flight, irrespective of the seat pitch, to prevent the onset of thrombosis, which does occur on rare occasions. This is a health issue that applies to any long-duration seated activity where a person remains immobile, rather than an aviation safety issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of venous thromboembolism is the same for economy-class and business-class travel. The risk increases with increasing travel duration and with preexisting risk factors.

Each year the FAA prioritizes its rulemaking projects based on issues that are crucial to the safety of the aviation community and the traveling public to ensure we deliver the most value to the aviation system.

In addition to the guidelines in § 11.73, Executive Order 12866 requires all rules to assessed with regard to their costs and benefits. Mandating specific seat size and spacing would carry significant cost, unless all seats already met the standards. The safety benefits of such a mandate are not apparent.

And here’s the reply from FlyersRights.org:

Thank you for responding to our rule making petition FAA-2015-4011 (copy enclosed) re: seat standards within six months.

However, as we just received your letter (copy enclosed) last Wednesday, the docket stated that the petition was still pending decision and this decision was not posted on the docket, I would request that you withdraw your letter, provide more detail on your assertions that current seats do not pose a safety or health risk, and provide a formal revised decision that is properly posted on the docket as required.

Specifically, what studies or tests that you allude to but do not cite are you relying on for your conclusions that shrunken seats and leg room do not pose a safety or health risk?

I have been on the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee and the Occupant Safety (fka as the Emergency Evacuation Issue Group) since 1993. It is my understanding that the FAA has not conducted actual emergency evacuation tests for many years (instead relying on aircraft maker simulations), and has never conducted tests with test subjects who meet the profile of passengers as to weight, age, physical condition, etc. or with the current seat configuration.

As to DVT, there have been various studies which we cite that are supportive of our petition, we request that you formally cite the study(ies) you are relying on. As you should be aware, legislation is pending that would require the FAA to mandate minimum seat sizes. Even Airbus has called for minimum seat sizes for long haul flights.

Your letter decision also fails to address any of the 140 comments that have been filed and are overwhelming supportive begging the FAA to act. It also does not refute the fact that airlines are aggressively reducing passenger seat size, legroom for economy passengers. As this decision would give airlines a green light to accelerate passenger space reduction even further, I would expect that it could cause some airlines to reduce seat sizes further to the point that passengers over average size will be forced to pay more for seats that are the size of existing seats.

The DOT issues certificates of public convenience and necessity and the FAA for safety to airlines that offer air travel services to the general public. As such, the FAA and DOT cannot just focus on standards for safety and health. Otherwise airlines will be free to provide seats that are clearly inhumane and do not even meet the standards of transporting prisoners or animals. The consolidation of US airlines into four major carriers largely eliminating competition on domestic routes. This means that without minimum seat standards, airlines will be free to place passengers in steerage type conditions or offer inadequate seating for a the body size of a large proportion of the traveling public by engaging in unfair seat shrinkage practices.

Given that this issue has risen to the top of passenger concerns, the establishment of an advisory committee as proposed to study the issue and make recommendations to the FAA would appear to be the least that should be done.

Accordingly, we would request that your letter of February 1st, 2016 be withdrawn and that the FAA issue a formal decision that takes into account the above concerns and deficiencies.

Wow, what a great Washington drama we have here. Who needs presidential primaries when we have this?

Ashton will have to wait for civility to return to the skies. But in the meantime, you have a poll to take.

Who is right?

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