The winning answer in this case: The airlines. In the economy cabin. With shrinking seats.
A consumer group called FlyersRights.org had asked the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent airline seats from getting any more cramped. The group warned that narrower seats and less space between rows is safety risk in an evacuation and a health risk for passenger such as deep-vein thrombosis.
But FAA, which requires airlines to prove they can get everyone off a plane in 90 seconds in an emergency, rejected the request by saying it does take safety into account when testing planes for evacuations.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled Friday that the FAA offered a “vaporous record” of evacuation tests with “off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters” in justifying not regulating seat size. The court ordered FAA to provide a "properly reasoned" explanation of its evacuation standards.
“This is the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat,” Judge Patricia Millett wrote in the 23-page decision.
Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights, called the decision "a very rare reprimand."
“What I think legally is unusual about the case is that the court found that the evidence that the FAA gave for the denial was essentially fake," Hudson said Monday.
FAA said in a statement Monday that the agency is considering the ruling and any potential actions to deal with the findings.
“The FAA does consider seat pitch in testing and assessing the safe evacuation of commercial, passenger aircraft,” FAA said.
The size of airline seats has been contentious for years.
Since Congress deregulated the airline industry in 1978, the average pitch has dropped from 35 inches to 31 inches, with some airlines flying with 28 inches between rows, according to FlyersRights. During the same period, the average 18-inch width of seats has dropped an inch or two, according to the group.
In August 2015, FlyersRights asked FAA to block any further reductions in seat size and while drafting rules limiting changes in seat sizes “to ensure consumer safety, health and comfort.”
The FAA rejected that request, saying it didn’t meet the criteria for rulemaking because it didn’t raise immediate safety or security concerns. FAA noted that it had run an emergency-evacuation test in 1998 with 550 occupants getting off a 777-300 in the dark. FAA has also tested evacuation with 29- and 28-inch pitch.
“The existing standards for evacuation time have been demonstrated to be safe,” FAA said inn April 2016.
But passenger outcries persisted. American Airlines abandoned a proposal in June to go from 31 inch pitch to 30 inches for most rows in economy and 29 inches pitch for a few rows in the back of its latest Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.
The trade group Airlines for America, which represents most of the largest carriers, declined comment on the case because it wasn’t involved in the arguments
But spokesman Vaughn Jennings said Monday that “intense competition throughout the industry is driving positive change for consumers” with more choices among airlines and their amenities.
“The FAA has affirmed that all US carriers meet or exceed federal safety standards and we continue to believe that there is no need for government to interfere with the market driven solutions that are delivering a better, safer and more comfortable flight experience for everyone who takes to the skies,” he said.
“I think this decision should certainly give an impetus to Congress to enact something," Hudson said. "Hopefully it will strengthen some of the provisions that are out there."
The appeals panel noted reasonable concerns from the consumer group about cramped seating. One passengers described climbing over seats to get out of a row and another said a plane couldn’t have been evacuated in an emergency in less than 3 minutes.
But the court said FAA cited studies that say nothing about and do not appear to control for seat pitch, width or any other seat dimension.”
“That makes no sense,” Millett wrote.
FAA will have 60 days to appeal the decision or six months to provide that documentation that the court ordered.
Hudson said airlines squeeze the seating to get more passengers aboard each plane. But, noting American's change in plans, Hudson said he hoped for a change of heart at FAA and among airlines.
“They shouldn’t be unsafe and they shouldn’t be unhealthy," Hudson said.
The panel included Judges Judith Rogers and Nina Pillard. Rogers agreed only with the decision dealing with the “safety” argument because FlyersRights raised the “health” issue, with concerns about passengers suffering deep-vein thrombosis from tight seating, only in its reply to the department’s arguments.