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D.C. Circuit Leaves FAA Seat Size Requirements at Conjunction Junction

By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

Words matter everywhere. But we can't think of a place where a single word can matter more than a court of law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently rebuffed efforts to force the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to regulate airplane seat sizes primarily based on the word "and."

Yep, Those Seats Are Getting Smaller

Whether you're a frequent flyer or your interactions with airlines are more on the occasional side, you've probably noticed that airplane seats are getting tighter and tighter. And yes, it's partially because Americans are generally larger now than they were a few decades ago. But it's also because airlines making seats smaller to fit more people on a flight.

Consumer rights groups have advocated for airlines to end this practice, but so far, the FAA has declined to step in and stop the shrinkage. According to the D.C. Circuit, they don't have to until passenger safety is at risk.

'And' That's a Wrap

The three-judge panel denied a writ of mandamus requested by the Flyers Rights Education Fund this week. It's not all that surprising, really. Writs of mandamus command a lower court, government agency, or official to do something, and courts are generally hesitant to grant them. But the way the panel gets there caught our attention.

Flyers Rights wanted the D.C. Circuit to compel the FAA to establish a minimum seat size for aircraft. And a quick reading of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act seems to indicate that they should have by now:

"Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act...the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall issue regulations that establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats on aircraft...including minimums for seat pitch, width, and length, and that are necessary for the safety of passengers."

We added emphasis because the D.C. Circuit makes a meal out of the presence of "and" in that last line. The panel concluded that the best interpretation, "though perhaps not [the] only interpretation," of the statute only requires the FAA to step in when seat-size regulations are necessary to protect passenger safety. In fact, according to the panel, the FAA is not authorized to step in until seat-size regulation is imperative for passengers' safety.

The panel acknowledges that such a day might come. If seating gets so tight that airlines can no longer evacuate a plane in 90 seconds (as required by the FAA), minimum seat sizes could be issued. According to U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Tammy Baldwin, that day may already be here. But the courts aren't telling the FAA to get out their tape measures quite yet.

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