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FAA Regulations Make Flying Coach a ‘Life-And-Death’ Concern

by Countable | 9.29.17

What’s the story?

A judge with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has said the "densification" of seats in coach now poses “a plausible life-and-death safety concern.”

The judge’s remarks come in response to litigation by the non-profit activist group Flyers Rights.

The case, and associated Federal Aviation Administration regulations, are investigated in a report by The Daily Beast.

Why does it matter?

The airline industry is supposed to run tests on whether passengers can effectively evacuate a plane during an emergency. With airlines packing seats tighter and tighter, however, the online outlet found the tests were "woefully out of date."

How out of date? The Daily Beast noted that:

"No coach class seat meets the Department of Transportation’s own standard for the space required to make a flight attendant’s seat safe in an emergency."

"Neither Boeing nor the [FAA] will disclose the evacuation test data for the newest (and most densely seated) versions of the most widely used jet, the Boeing 737."

Flyers Rights is asking the FAA to place a moratorium on all "further reductions in seat size, width, pitch and padding and aisle width" until an advisory committee, or task force, can create new standards for seat and passenger space.

The court has given the FAA until December 28th to respond.

Flyers Rights argued that seats in coach are now so close together that the "brace for impact" position illustrated in airline safety manuals would actually cause “blunt trauma impact when a passenger’s head strikes the seatback in front of them.”

The measurement of the space from the top of one seatback to the next is called "pitch." Flyers Rights, as explained by The Daily Beast, said that “in coach the pitch has decreased from an average of 35 inches in the early 2000s to 31 inches today—and in an increasing number of cases it has now shrunk to 28 inches. In the same period, average seat width has shrunk from 18.5 inches to 17 inches.”

The FAA’s evacuation tests, The Daily Beast explained, were put into place before airlines began shrinking legroom and don’t reflect how the "size of passengers has simultaneously increased." Or, as the court pointed out, “a pattern of placing ever larger passengers in ever smaller seats with still less space between them.”

Paul Hudson, the president of Flyers Rights, called this shrinking of pitch

"A Titanic waiting to happen."

An FAA spokesman told The Daily Beast that it couldn’t comment on how various airplane manufacturers test for seat densities, but that the companies "have demonstrated full-scale emergency evacuation of airplanes with seat pitches as low as 28 inches. In no case did the seat pitch have an effect on the outcome of the test."

And while the FAA argued in the court case that pitch had no impact on evacuation, it did acknowledge that "increased passenger width had the greatest effect on exit speed of all the variables tested."

Citing "the proprietary nature of the date," neither the FAA nor Boeing will release the results of evacuation tests specific to the latest 737s. However, Boeing told The Daily Beast,

"The public can be assured that Boeing substantiates the evacuation capability of our airplanes using the maximum allowable number of passengers, which is significantly higher than what airlines typically use in their operations."

What do you think?

Is shrinking seat space a "life-and-death safety concern"? Should the FAA and Boeing share their test data? Does the FAA need to create a committee to set new standards for seat and passenger space? Hit the Take Action button, tell your reps, then comment below.

—Josh Herman

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(Photo Credit: gchutka / iStockphoto)

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