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Despite Court Ruling, Don’t Expect Airline Seat-Width Regulation

The Flyers Rights group and all of those passengers weary of the cabin crunch had a dramatic win this week when a court ruled that the FAA should regulate the size of airline seats, citing the safety implications of evacuating crowded planes.

But, before you cheer, there are both practical and regulatory reasons you will not see regulations granting passengers more room on planes.

Here are three good reasons why:

1.  The basis of the judgement, that this is a health and safety issue and that aircraft evacuation is complicated by more crowded seating, is inaccurate.

I say this not only because I’ve worked on seats and safety, but because I’ve carefully researched this topic over many years. In fact, in 2014, I published a story on the Runway Girl Network, based on research I had carried out. I had discovered a report which claimed there were safety implications and recommended new standards for pitch and a 19.6 width minimum. I thought I was on to something.

Except, I kept researching what had happened with that report. Why hadn’t regulators acted based on the findings if, indeed, there was a greater risk of delays during an evacuation? I got my answer not just from regulators but from other experts in cabin safety who said the opposite. As I wrote in a detailed article for Aircraft Interiors International, evacuation tests have shown that crowded cabins may actually intensify a sense of urgency which ensures that more people get out sooner.

2. Should regulators go against their own findings and regulate based on this ruling, it would lead to a watershed replacement which is untenable for the airline industry.

Regulations mean something. They require compliance. If the FAA were required to reconsider its position, based on the premise that there is a safety issue, all seats would eventually need to comply. Airlines might be granted an extended timeline for compliance. That timeline might be extended for years. But compliance would represent a significant change-out of seats already in service which would cost billions.

That said, if regulators come back with the evidence they’ve already provided for the Aircraft Interiors Article International that I reference above, then there is no health and safety basis for the judgement. The research found that there is no validity to claims of increased risks of Deep Vein Thrombosis either. Therefore, despite the judge’s ruling, the most likely outcome is that regulators will gather all the information they have already presented and say that they have reviewed the matter and find no reason to regulate airline seating.

3. Don’t forget Trump’s Executive Order on Regulatory Reform.

I raised questions about the implications of this EO on the day it was published earlier this year. In a climate focused on eliminating regulation, it is difficult to imagine that the FAA would add any new rules on such shaky ground as this judgment. I’m more concerned about the fate of existing regulations drafted on sound premises, based on the results of accidents.

Don’t stop complaining!

That there is no practical basis for regulating seat dimensions, and that doing so would cause an unholy mess of seat re-design and costs, should not discourage passengers from complaining about the current state of the cabin.

Indeed, American’s recent reversal on a 29″ pitch for its new 737s shows that raising a fuss means something. Of course, it was a minor win and getting an extra inch will not make a significant improvement. Likewise, one could argue, regulating seats that are 18″ wide as a minimum will not make a significant difference to seat comfort. Most passengers are simply taller and wider than a reasonable passenger seat layout could accommodate.

The point is that airlines do listen and they listen especially to money. Even if this proposal for seat regulations falls flat, airlines would change their point of view if everyone who can afford better buys seats with extra legroom or Premium Economy seats. If airlines see a real market demand for more comfortable seating, and they begin to see that they are forfeiting significant revenue by limiting the number of these seats available, they will adapt to that market. If they believed that they could sell twice the number of added legroom or Premium Economy seats for more money than carrying the extra passengers on the tighter seats, then they would change their cabin design.

This will not be enough to address the problem of many more millions of people wanting to fly. Airlines will still have to decide whether to leave a certain portion of the market to low-cost carriers offering the lowest fares. But if we want better cabin conditions, then passengers must continue to insist on them—not as a right, but as a preferred ($$) product feature.

The reality is that seating regulations would mean significantly higher fares. We’ve seen airfares shrink far more dramatically (nearly by half) than seat dimensions over the past thirty years. Passengers might want to start paying for more expensive but better seats now, and driving real change, without waiting for rules or regulations to catch up.

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