US airlines say there is no need for the government to interfere in airlines’ seat-pitch decisions as long as FAA affirms aircraft seats meet safety standards.

In the aftermath of a US federal court ruling pushing FAA to provide a stronger basis for not regulating commercial aircraft seat size, Airlines for America (A4A) cited “intense competition” leading to “more choices among carriers and amenities—including various seating options—than ever before.”

An A4A spokesperson told ATW: “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.”

A US federal appeals court in Washington DC on July 28 ruled FAA was wrong to dismiss a seat-size rulemaking petition by a consumer group based on the information the agency provided to justify the dismissal. The court did say FAA was correct to dismiss the portion of the Flyers Rights group’s petition that asked FAA, in the court’s words, to “regulate matters of physical comfort and routine health.” But the court said FAA had failed to demonstrate that smaller seats have no effect on the ability of passengers to quickly and safely evacuate an aircraft in an emergency.

The court ordered FAA to revisit the safety aspect of its dismissal of the Flyers Rights’ petition, or at least provide better evidence for dismissing the safety concern. FAA said it is reviewing the court’s decision and reaffirmed that it does consider seat pitch when making assessments on aircraft evacuation safety. 

‘Vaporous record’

FAA failed “to provide a plausible evidentiary basis for concluding that decreased seat sizes combined with increased passenger sizes have no effect on emergency egress,” the court stated in its ruling, adding, “[FAA] has a broad mandate to protect and promote passenger safety. Ensuring that all passengers can rapidly evacuate an airplane is of central importance to that safety mission.”

To support its dismissal of the safety portion of the Flyers Rights’ petition, FAA “pointed to (at best) off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters,” the court stated. “That type of vaporous record will not do—[US law governing regulations] requires reasoned decision making grounded in actual evidence.”

According to the court, FAA said it had conducted aircraft emergency exit tests “successfully” with seats at a 28- and 29-inch pitch. FAA also pointed out that seat pitch “alone does not determine the amount of space available between seats … [because] modern, thinner seats at lower seat pitch provide more space than older seats did at higher pitch.”

But the court said FAA needs to publicly provide more data on these tests. “We cannot affirm the sufficiency of what we cannot see,” the court stated, noting that data “hidden from judicial view simply cannot withstand scrutiny.”

American reversal

Aircraft seat pitch has been a hot button issue in the US airline industry, particularly as ultra-low cost carriers (ULCCs) gain traction and mainline airlines offer fares and products to compete directly with ULCCs. When certifying commercial aircraft, FAA does include a maximum number of seats requirement. But it does not mandate seat pitch.

Dallas/Fort Worth-based American Airlines recently reversed course on a plan to have three rows of 29-inch pitch seats on Boeing 737 MAX aircraft after the carrier’s flight attendants and other employees pushed back, according to chairman and CEO Doug Parker.

Speaking to analysts and reporters to discuss American’s second-quarter earnings, Parker said mainstream news reports on the 29-inch pitch seats “overstated the situation.” American was not looking to squeeze more seats on the aircraft, he explained, but wanted an extra row of premium economy seats on its 737 MAX aircraft. It was making that possible with three rows of 29-inch pitch seats that would usually be sold as basic economy seats. And those seats would be “new state-of-the-art slim-line seats very high in comfort,” Parker said.

But American “got a lot of pushback from our customers and most notably from our team members,” he said. “We started hearing from our flight attendants … We came to the conclusion it wasn’t the right decision to make … What it was doing to our perception with our team wasn’t worth it.”

Those three rows of seats on American’s 737 MAX aircraft will now have a 30-inch pitch and the planned extra row of premium economy seats will be converted back to a row of standard economy seats. Parker said the “30-inch pitch on slim-line seats will feel more like 31 or 32 inches.”

Ultimately, “it wasn’t a hard decision to make” to back away from the 29-inch pitch seats, he added.

Aaron Karp