Are Too Small Airline Seats Illegal?


by Robert McGarvey

A judge now has the backs – and backsides – of coach class passengers. That’s because Judge Patricia Millett, sitting on the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, has authored an opinion that slams the FAA for ignoring “basic physics” as it has allowed airlines to shrink seat sizes.

Millett, in the majority opinion, called it “the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat.”

The Circuit Court’s decision has gotten lots of press coverage – but the decision is more narrow than it might seem. There’s good news in it, for coach passengers, but it is not the revolution touted by many headline writers.

The root of the case is that, as you know, seats have in fact gotten smaller – while we as a people have gotten bigger.  Two in three adults in the US are overweight or obese. One is three are obese.  

According to, seats are an inch and a half smaller than they were 15 years ago. The space between you and the passenger behind you has also shrunk, to as small as 28”. 35” was the usual pitch some years ago.  

Enter a case filed by, et. al. vs the FAA.  The case focused on FlyersRights’ attempt to persuade the FAA “to promulgate rules governing size limitations for aircraft seats to ensure, among other things, that passengers can safely and quickly evacuate a plane in an emergency.”

In response, the FAA denied the link between seat size and passenger health and safety.

Here’s how Millett summed up the case: “To support that conclusion, the Administration pointed to (at best) off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters. That type of vaporous record will not do—the Administrative Procedure Act requires reasoned decisionmaking grounded in actual evidence.”

Millett went on: “Flyers Rights expressed concern that the decrease in seat size, coupled with the increase in passenger size, imperiled passengers’ health and safety by slowing emergency egress and by causing deep vein thrombosis (a potentially fatal condition involving blood clots in the legs), as well as “soreness, stiffness, [and] other joint and muscle problems.”

Millett did not completely endorse the FlyersRights’ viewpoint. The opinion noted: “We agree with Flyers Rights that the Administration failed to provide a plausible evidentiary basis for concluding that decreased seat sizes combined with increased passenger sizes have no effect on emergency egress. But we disagree with Flyers Rights’ challenge to the Administration’s declination to regulate matters of physical comfort and routine health.”

She also noted: “The Administration’s rationale also blinks reality. As a matter of basic physics, at some point seat and passenger dimensions would become so squeezed as to impede the ability of passengers to extricate themselves from their seats and get over to an aisle. The question is not whether seat dimensions matter, but when.”

Millett added that some FAA research in fact corroborates the Flyers Rights viewpoint. “Indeed, an Administration study that addressed passenger size in a slightly different context actually corroborates Flyers Rights’ point. The study considered, among other things, the ability of wider passengers to pass through the emergency exit row and door. Importantly, this test found that increased passenger width had the greatest effect on exit speed of all the variables tested.”

Millett further noted: “The problems with the Administration’s position do not stop there. Even with respect to its unseen tests, the agency cannot say whether those tests accounted for increased passenger size, which is a critical component of the egress problem raised by Flyers Rights’ petition. When questioned at oral argument, counsel for the Administration was unaware whether such tests take into account larger passengers.”

Sort through the court’s thoughts and where the FAA dropped the ball was around the possible relationship between smaller seats and passenger safety.  

In places, Millett agreed with the FAA. For instance: “Specifically, with respect to the risk of deep vein thrombosis, the Administration cited evidence showing that it rarely occurs and, regardless, is not caused by seat size or spacing.”

Here too: “Flyers Rights also noted passenger problems with ‘soreness, stiffness, [and] other joint and muscle problems’ in its petition for rulemaking….Given that those conditions are commonplace, temporary, and non-life threatening discomforts, Flyers Rights’ petition failed to demonstrate that the Administration erred in declining to undertake immediate rulemaking.”

As for what the court ordered, here it is: “We grant Flyers Rights’ petition for review in part, and remand to the Administration for a properly reasoned disposition of the petition’s safety concerns about the adverse impact of decreased seat dimensions and increased passenger size on aircraft emergency egress.”

So the FAA is tasked with more research on the possible links between smaller seats and passenger safety.

Will we get bigger seats as an upshot?  More comfortable seats? That’s just not likely.  

But at least airlines – and the FAA – are on notice that seat dimensions can be considered by a court and, in the event there are health and safety impacts, the court is willing to order the FAA to exercise oversight.

Just don’t count on bigger, plusher seats in coach. That really isn’t a likely consequence of this order.