Airlines are hardly unique in their attempts to balance customer satisfaction with profits, but a recent court decision determined that, according to the federal judge presiding over the case, the air travel industry had possibly overstepped this boundary by dismissing passenger concerns. The case, which began two years ago, resulted from claims that certain carriers were dramatically cutting the space between seats in an effort to pack more passengers on board, a move which posed safety risks for flyers.
Air travel, while highly convenient, hasn’t historically been associated with comfort. Unless passengers are able to afford the more spacious and comfortable first class accommodations, the relative discomfort of coach seating was simply an unavoidable part of the experience. However, about two years ago, FlyersRights.org, a unique non-profit dedicated to advocating for airline customers, launched a petition aimed at requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to establish a strict standard for seat pitch.
Seat pitch is airline industry jargon for the space between a passenger’s own seat and the chair directly in front of them, and also takes into account the cushions and tray table, which all impact how much space each passenger has available. Seat pitch is not just a question of comfort. It can also dramatically impact how quickly passengers can evacuate in the event of an emergency. The petition also cited research which suggests cramped seating can cause or exacerbate blood clots in the legs, a significant risk for potential sufferers at 35,000 feet, far from any hospital.
Despite receiving tens of thousand of signatures from passionate customers and frequent flyers, the FAA declined to establish any sort of standard, instead leaving the issue up to the discretion of individual carriers. They went on to assert that seat pitch had no impact on the speed of evacuation. Thankfully, Judge Patricia Millett, presiding over the District of Columbia’s Court of Appeals, handed down a ruling that will require the FAA to readdress the petition. In her opinion, the FAA’s response was inadequate, particularly in their denial of a relationship between seat pitch and safety. Judge Millet’s conclusion was supported by two other judges, lending significant credibility to FlyersRights.org’s petition.
Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals refused to force the FAA to establish a minimum seat pitch, nor did they accept the advocacy group’s claims connecting seat pitch to health risks. Still, the court’s decision will force the FAA to reexamine the concerns raised by the petition, perhaps leading to a compromise.