It's not your imagination. Airline seats in the economy cabin have shrunk. But now it's the FAA that's in the hot seat.
A three-judge panel gave the Federal Aviation Administration six months to provide documentation to back up its argument that it shouldn't regulate seat size. The FAA has 60 days to appeal the decision.
The kerfuffle over "the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat,” as U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Millett wrote in the 23-page decision on Friday, began with a consumer group called FlyersRights.org.
The group wants the FAA to prevent airline seats from getting any more cramped. It argues that the narrower seats and less space between rows in the economy cabin is safety risk that could hamper an evacuation and a health risk for passengers who could develop deep-vein thrombosis from being too wedged in to move.
The FAA, which requires airlines to prove they can get everyone off a plane in 90 seconds in an emergency, says it doesn't need to regulate seat size because it takes the cabin layout into account when testing planes for evacuations.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit didn't buy the FAA's argument. It called out the FAA for its “vaporous record” of evacuation tests. The sharply worded ruling criticized the FAA for using “off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters.”
The FAA cited studies that "say nothing about and do not appear to control for seat pitch, width or any other seat dimension," the court said.
“That makes no sense,” Millett wrote.
The appeals panel acknowledged concerns from the consumer group, including one passenger who described climbing over seats to get out of a row and another who said a plane couldn’t have been evacuated in an emergency in less than 3 minutes.
The court ordered FAA to provide a "properly reasoned" explanation of its evacuation standards.
Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights, called the decision "a very rare reprimand."
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 as airlines sought to squeeze more people onto flights.
Since Congress deregulated the airline industry in 1978, the average pitch has dropped from 35 inches to 31 inches, with some airlines flying with as little as 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 until it could draft rules seating minimum seat sizes “to ensure consumer safety, health and comfort.”
The FAA rejected that request, saying it can only issue rules in situations that 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 in April 2016.
But passenger outcry 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 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 the FAA affirmed that U.S. airlines meet or exceed federal safety standards.
“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 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.