US court hears objection to lack of rules on airline seat size

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By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court heard arguments Monday from a flyer advocacy group urging it to order the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to set minimum seat sizes on passenger jets.

In 2018, Congress said that within a year, the FAA must enact regulations specifying minimum dimensions for passenger seats — including minimums for seat pitch, width and length — “necessary for passenger safety.”

Seat pitch – the distance from one seat to another – on low cost airlines Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines is one of the tightest in the industry at 28 inches (71 cm) in the coach class. The average for other mainline economy seats is around 30 to 31 inches.

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“Currently, there are no minimum seat sizes,” said Michael Kirkpatrick, attorney for FlyersRights.org. “Maybe they’re going to codify the current seat sizes and status quo for all the conditions needed for safety, then maybe there will be a substantive challenge. But the point here is there’s no regulation on seat pitch, width or length now.”

The Justice Department said the “FAA’s investigation of existing evidence has not yet established a safety need for minimum seat sizes,” but the FAA continues to “research diligently” the issue.

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The government says the FAA should not issue regulations if the regulation is “not required to protect passenger safety,” while the flyer group said without legal action “FAA will continue to treat the legal requirement as a low priority it for can ignore indefinitely.”

In August, the FAA solicited comment from the public and has already received 11,700 responses. The response period closes on November 1.

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Current rules say airlines must be able to evacuate passengers within 90 seconds and have no seat size requirements.

In July 2018, the FAA said it would not regulate seat size. Airlines’ margins can suffer if they have to reconfigure planes and cut seats.

FlyersRights says the U.S. airline’s seat pitch has shrunk by 3 to 7 inches since 1970, while seat widths have decreased by more than an inch.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; editing by Matthew Lewis)