If the world seems to be closing in around you, check to see whether you’re on an airplane.
It’s all part of what Judge Patricia Millett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit called “the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat.”
“As many have no doubt noticed, aircraft seats and the spacing between them have been getting smaller and smaller, while American passengers have been growing in size,” Millett said in a July ruling ordering the FAA to review seat sizes and legroom.
The FAA said it will soon announce its decision, but officials declined to specify when.
“The FAA is still evaluating potential actions to address the Court’s findings, but expects to issue its decision soon,” the agency said in a statement.
The case came about because a nonprofit group, the Flyers Rights Education Fund, asked the FAA for rules to prevent the passenger squeeze from continuing.
The FAA considers itself a safety agency rather than a creature-comfort agency. If the airlines want to turn you into a pretzel, the agency figures that’s their right so long as you can unwind fast enough to escape if something goes wrong.
When the FAA said safety — not seat size — was its priority, Flyers Rights took the agency to court.
The group said seat pitch — the distance between your seat and the one directly in front of you — has decreased from an average of 35 inches to 31 inches, and on some airlines it had been reduced to 28 inches. It said the width of a seat has shrunk from about 18.5 inches to 17 inches, even as the bottoms of many people have grown wider.
“Airlines will do almost anything to make a buck, I’m sorry to say,” said Brent D. Bowen, a dean at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, who for 28 years has put out the Airline Quality Rating.
“They’ve now gotten to the point where they automatically put you in the worst seats and you have to buy your way out,” Bowen said. “They now have five classes of service — even three classes of economy seats — and they have a strategy only to put you in the middle of a row in a tiny seat in the back of the aircraft.”
Bowen said the remedy for cramped seating has to come from the courts and Congress.
“There’s no alternative, because the airlines are not going to set a reasonable standard,” Bowen said.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has pushed an amendment through the House Transportation Committee that would require the FAA to set seat sizes.
“It’s clear that the FAA must review seat sizes and the distances between rows of seats,” Cohen said in a recent statement.
The specific task Millett set for the FAA is to explain why it rejected the Flyers Rights request for rules about seat size and the amount of room between rows of seats. Airlines for America, which lobbies for several of the major airlines, referred an inquiry to the FAA.
“I think that this most likely will end up back in court, unless they agree to do something about the shrinking seats,” said Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights. “Since the court decision in July, airlines have been aggressively shrinking even more.”
Hudson said the airlines have put new seats on old planes.
“They are replacing what were already small seats with seats that are even smaller,” he said. “They’ve also reduced the size of the bathrooms. You cannot turn around in some of them. They have [sink] bowls that are so small that you have to wash one hand at a time.”
Hudson said airlines have taken action since the infamous “Knee Defender” incident on a United Airlines flight in 2014. The Defender, then priced at $21.95, prevents the person sitting in front from reclining. A squabble broke out on a flight from Newark to Denver, with a woman whose recline was obstructed throwing a drink in the face of the man who used the device.
The flight was diverted to Chicago to sort things out, and the incident made modest headlines around the nation. It also seems to have encouraged the airlines to take action.
“A lot of them are eliminating any recline at all,” Hudson said. “You feel like you’re in a straitjacket.”