An Alarming Court Case Reveals That Airplane Seat Sizes Really Are Shrinking

If you were to rank the things that Americans complain about most, air travel would almost certainly be at the very top of the list. Once upon a time in a not-so-far off past, a plane trip meant you were wooed with inflight meals, drinks, and the luxury of a free checked bag. Now, every airline seems to be hyperfocused on getting as many people as humanly possible into each and every flight that takes off, regardless of what that means for the customer experience. While on-board Wi-Fi and seat-back TVs may serve as a gimmicky distraction, it’s impossible to ignore the uniquely awful discomfort of an overbooked flight — or, quite honestly, to ignore the fact that it feels like the amount of personal space you get on a plane seems to be dwindling by the day. Here’s the thing, though: you’re not imagining it. You really are getting a whole lot less seat for your buck — a fact that the FAA is now being forced to deal with in court on a federal level.

Back in 2015, an advocacy group called Flyers Rights filed a petition over safety concerns related to diminished seat size, but had their claim thrown out by the FAA. After two years of fighting in federal appeals court, the judge ruled in favor of the group last week. “This is the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat,” Judge Patricia Millett’s July 28 opinion on the case reads. “As many have no doubt noticed, aircraft seats and the spacing between them have been getting smaller and smaller, while American passengers have been growing in size.” Millet goes on to say that the original petition was thrown out without merit, as the evidence used to deny the claim was what she called “vaporous,” likening it to “‘a study on tooth decay that only recorded participants’ sugar consumption’ but did not look at brushing and flossing.”

As of right now, there’s no minimum seat size set by Congress or the FAA. Earlier this year the Senate rejected a proposal that would have put a guideline in place, but was shot down by a partisan vote. But it did mean that some concrete statistics on the shrinkage, sourced by New York Senator Chuck Schumer were made available to the general public. And boy, does it paint an ugly picture: that the distance between seat rows (known as “seat pitch,” or just the amount of legroom per seat) had dropped from 35 inches to 31 inches over the past 50 years, and that the size of the seat itself had gone from 18.5 inches to around 17 in the last 25. And those are averages — certain airlines are as low as 28 and 16.5, which is astonishing when considered in the context of the growing rate of obesity in the United States.

The larger question of regulation isn’t likely to be dealt with soon, though. The case that was just heard in court deals explicitly with “whether smaller seats and larger passengers could have an impact on emergency egress,” and while the decision forces the FAA to go back to the drawing board with how they’re going to regulate this specific problem (or come up with legitimate evidence that means they don’t have to), it will only be the first step toward addressing our cramped legs and sore bottoms. But there’s something to be said about knowing that for once we’re not all just complaining about something that’s inconveniencing us — it’s really happening. And maybe, just maybe, this newfound awareness will help boost the effort for travelers to get the legroom that they deserve (and, frankly, are paying for.)

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