US aviation authority says there's no need to regulate airline legroom for passenger safety

2018-07-05 08:30
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United States federal regulators have rejected the idea of setting minimum standards for airline seats and legroom as a safety measure.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Tuesday, 3 July, that it saw no immediate safety issue that requires new regulations, and cited seven recent accidents in which passengers were able to evacuate.

The FAA was responding to a group called FlyersRights , which had gone to court to prod the agency to act.

In 2017, Flyers Rights argued that the average seat width has narrowed from approximately 18.5 inches (47cm) in the early-2000s to 17 inches (43cm) in the early-to-mid-2010s, and the distance between seat rows has gone from an average of 35 inches (89cm) to 31 inches (79cm), and as low as 28 inches (71cm) at some airlines.

SEE: US court calls for regulation of 'incredible shrinking airline seat'

FlyersRights says cramped planes combined with the larger size of today's passengers means that planes can't be evacuated in 90 seconds, as required.

"In the real world, people are taking a lot longer than 90 seconds to get out," Paul Hudson, a lawyer for the group, said in an interview. He said the FAA relied on tests from the 1990s using people who "don't' resemble the profile of American passengers today."

ALSO SEE: Airline fat zones for plus-sized passengers: Good idea, bad idea?

The FAA turned down FlyersRights once before, but last year a federal appeals court ordered the agency to take another look at the issue, saying the FAA had relied on outdated or irrelevant tests and studies. Hudson said the group may go back to the appeals court to force the FAA to act.

Seat shrinkage and quick exits

Although thinner seat cushions offset some of the shrinkage, seat width has changed far less, if at all.

Airplane manufacturers submitted videos of evacuation tests to argue that new rules are not needed. Boeing said that in 1996 it tested planes with 351 passengers and 28 inches (71cm) of pitch, and the results met FAA evacuation standards.

Jeffrey Gardlin, a safety engineer who has worked for FAA for 36 years, says large passengers can take longer to escape exits, so the agency sets minimum sizes for over-wing exits. But, he said, size doesn't make much difference in the time it takes to get from a seat to the aisle.

In an affidavit, Gardlin cited seven accidents since 2015 in which passengers were able to escape planes designed to meet current standards. Some passengers were hurt during evacuations but none died in fires, even those that destroyed the plane. He said there were no reports that seat size or row pitch slowed any of the evacuations.

MUST-SEE: 8 Airlines with ample legroom

Tuesday's decision, however, is not necessarily the final word on aircraft seats.

A House-passed bill would direct the FAA to set minimum seat sizes, although it leaves the decision on the exact measures to the agency. The bill is pending in the Senate.

Last month, the Transportation Department's inspector general announced a review of the FAA's evacuation standards, noting that today's planes have more seats, passengers are larger, and they have more carry-on bags.

The inspector general was responding to a request from members of the House Transportation Committee, which followed a confused evacuation of an American Airlines jet in Chicago after an engine fire.

More space for safety and comfort

Meanwhile in South Africa, following a local passenger being subjected to humiliation after she requested a seat belt extension from the crew, tiny seat sizes and legroom spaces have become a much-debated topic.

ALSO SEE: SAA fat-shames woman for requesting seat belt extension on Cape Town flight

A study conducted by Jetcost in 2017 shows that a number of travellers around the world believe a "fat zone with bigger seats and a higher purchase price attached to it is a good idea".

Apart from offering greater comfort, in a poll conducted by Traveller24, most travellers believe that airline legroom needs to be regulated to improve passenger safety.

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