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DC Circuit Takes on the 'Case of the Incredible Shrinking Seat'

By William Vogeler, Esq. on August 02, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's not your imagination if you think airline seats are getting smaller. Even the U.S Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has taken note.

"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," Judge Patricia Millett wrote in Flyers Rights Education Fund v. Federal Aviation Administration.

Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat

The plaintiffs sued because Americans are getting fatter, alleging that shrinking airline seats are creating safety problems for passengers who have to leave the plane in an emergency.

The FAA responded that seat size does not affect passengers' ability to deplane and cited studies addressing those safety concerns. However, the government claimed the information was "proprietary" and would not agree to provide the tests under seal either.

"That is not how judicial review works," Millett said. "We cannot affirm the sufficiency of what we cannot see."

Calling it "The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Seat," the appeals panel also poked fun at the FAA, saying its claim that seat size does not impede egress "makes no sense." The judges ordered the FAA to conduct a more thorough review of the plaintiff's claims, declining to order the government to come up with new rules for now.

Economy Seat Size

Reuters reported that FAA spokesman Greg Martin said the agency "does consider seat pitch in testing and assessing the safe evacuation of commercial, passenger aircraft. We are studying the ruling carefully and any potential actions we may take to address the court's findings."

Meanwhile, the legroom between economy seats has decreased from 35 inches to as small as 28 inches in some airplanes today. Average seat width has gone down almost two inches in the past decade.

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