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Smaller Sized Airline Seats Could be Putting Our Safety at Risk

Wednesday, December 20, 2017By Nina Shapirshteyn

If you’ve been traveling by air in the past decade, you’ve probably noticed that the airplane seats have gotten smaller and smaller – an obvious consequence of airlines trying to maximize cargo space to handle more passengers on each flight. This seem incongruous given the fact that most Americans have gotten larger during this same period of time. The airline seats now can be downright uncomfortable, sometimes making it difficult to even cross your legs with the limited leg space. We usually think of comfort regarding airline seats and try to ride out the discomfort for however long it takes to reach our destination. But what if our safety is also at risk with these smaller seats?

A lawsuit brought by the flyers’ advocacy group Flyers Rights in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia argues that the smaller size of airline seats does, indeed, make passengers less safe in the event of a crash. For years, the airlines have been permitted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to shrink both the space between rows of seats in coach class as well as the size of the coach seats themselves. No recent studies have been conducted to analyze the safety of these changes and the effect on safe evacuation in case of an emergency.

The U.S. Circuit Court judge ruled that there is “a plausible life-and-death safety concern” about the “densification” of seats in coach. The lawsuit asks the court to order the Federal Aviation Administration to propose new rules aimed at the safety issues created by shrinking row space and seat sizes in coach class airplane cabins. Specifically, Flyers Rights wants the FAA to prohibit the airlines from “any further reductions in seat size, width, pitch and padding and aisle width” and also wants the FAA to consider input on new safety standards for passenger space and seat size.

Flyers Rights also wants the FAA to conduct newer studies on the way emergency evacuation tests for airlines are carried out and to make public the results of these tests. The FAA has refused in the past to release the results of airline crash tests, arguing that they involved proprietary, protected data. The court has given the FAA until December 28th to respond to Flyers Rights’ complaint.

The lawsuit brings up an interesting point that is not largely discussed or considered by many people traveling by air. Have the changes made by airline companies to increase profits resulted in reduced air travel safety? The combined “densification” of coach class seating and the larger size of most passengers traveling may be a deadly combination.

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