As Americans have gotten larger, seats on airplanes have gotten smaller, and now a federal court has told the Federal Aviation Administration to look into the issue. On Friday, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals in Washington ordered the FAA to review its policies concerning seat sizes and legroom on commercial aircraft and to consider setting minimum space standards for passengers, Bloomberg reports. The decision was a victory for Flyers Rights, a passenger advocacy group, which petitioned the FAA in 2015 to develop new rules to regulate seat size but was turned down. The court took issue with the FAA's use of what it called "off-point studies" and "undisclosed tests using unknown parameters" to justify refusing the group's petition.
Flyers Rights presented evidence that the average width of an airplane seat shrunk from 18.5 inches in the early 2000s to 17 inches in 2005, CNN reports. In addition, the average distance between rows, known as the "seat pitch," has decreased from 35 inches to 31 "and in some airplanes has fallen as low as 28 inches," the court's decision reads. The advocacy group claims the combination of smaller seats, less legroom, and larger passengers makes it harder to exit planes and increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis, a blood-clot condition that can be fatal. The industry, meanwhile, argues that by reducing the size of seats and increasing their numbers, airlines can sell more tickets and therefore offer lower fares.