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Cramped Coach-Class Airplane Seats May Be Dangerous

Travelers have long been (understandably) frustrated about the trend towards more seats packed into airplanes, a move airlines have made to raise more revenue from fares. Passengers have to deal with less legroom, ever-skinnier-armrests, and headroom that makes it impossible for someone even of average height to stand up in their seat.

However, a recent news report alleges that these changes made for the bottom line aren’t just damaging to the comfort of consumers while traveling – they may be downright dangerous. News site The Daily Beast has published the results of their investigation, and the results aren’t pretty. They allege:

  • That tests meant to determine whether passengers can safely evacuate the cabin are outdated.
  • That no seat in coach meets the standard for the safety of a flight attendant’s seat established by the Department of Transportation (DOT).
  • That neither Boeing nor the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will release the data from tests on whether the newest versions of the ubiquitous (and often overpacked) Boeing 737 can be safely evacuated.
  • The investigation discusses a case, Flyers Rights Education Fund v. Federal Aviation Administration, in which the non-profit group Flyers Rights brought a suit against the FAA. Flyers Rights had petitioned the FAA in 2015 to create a rule that would limit the extent of seat size changes on commercial airlines “in order to ensure consumer safety, health, and comfort,” as well as place a moratorium on further seas size changes. Flyers Rights pointed out that many dimensions of seat size, such as width and pitch (the distance between a point on one seat and the seat in front) had all decreased, while passengers’ average height and girth had increased.

    The FAA denied their petition for rulemaking. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reached a decision on July 28, 2017, in which the Court granted Flyers Rights petition for review, and remanded the FAA to provide a “properly reasoned disposition of the petition’s safety concerns.”

    In her opinion, Judge Patricia Ann Millett wrote:

    “When the Administration responds to a petition for rulemaking that exposes a plausible life-and-death safety concern, the Administration must reasonably address that risk in its response. The Administration failed that task here. In asserting that decreasing seat size and pitch had no effect on emergency egress, the Administration pointed to certain studies and demonstration tests. But the cited studies say nothing about and do not appear to control for seat pitch, width, or any other seat dimension. Nor do they address or control for how increased passenger size interacts with the current seat dimensions to affect emergency egress. Studies cannot corroborate or demonstrate something that they never mention or even indirectly address.”

    Read the full, in-depth investigation from The Daily Beast here. Read the full decision of the U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit here.

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