Friday’s appellate court decision in Washington, which concluded that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should oversee the size of cabin seats in commercial aviation, is provocative. The decision brings to light many issues bubbling just under the surface of the industry. Does the size of airline cabin seats fall under the purview of the FAA? Should the government step in and regulate operators on how they earn profits, in spite of public opinion? Is FAA oversight of something as benign as cabin seats good for the consumer?
While I understand the public’s concern and the FAA’s hesitancy for oversight, in the final analysis, nothing is more critical than passenger safety.
It’s true that more people are traveling on airlines than ever before. The Department of Transportation Bureau of Statistics reports that 932 million people worldwide flew to their destinations last year. At the turn of the 19th century, the population feared horseless carriages and elevators; now people utilize both technologies without hesitation. In the 20th century, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 allowed low-cost carriers to capture a larger swath of the population to take to the air. The acclimation to commercial aviation was complete.
However, this tremendous growth in market share came with a price. Long security lines, massive delays, packed aircraft, and the recent phenomenon of “passenger rage” provide evidence of a dissatisfied customer base. Shrinking passenger seats have now compelled consumer advocacy groups to go to the courts for more oversight by the FAA.
But is that what the FAA does? The short answer is: yes. The FAA’s mission “is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.” However, the safest aerospace system in the world is often at odds with the business of commercial aviation. Airlines are largely responsible to shareholders and have a volatile past of mergers, acquisitions, poor employee morale, and bankruptcies. Therefore, the airlines must stay economically robust to sustain their profit margins. In the last few decades, this has meant reduced services, bag fees, superfluous ticket charges, and shrinking cabin seats, all of which equaled a poor customer experience.
Customers have learned to tolerate these experiences, but it can’t come at the expense of passenger safety. The industry’s history is riddled with airlines—in weakened economic conditions—that have failed after an accident. Furthermore, if the public’s trust erodes in the safety of the medium, it will not matter what size their seat is—they will be driving to their destinations.
In the event of an accident, passengers must always be able to safely egress from the aircraft. This will always be the FAA’s primary directive, but not always the airlines’. The airline will often push the operational commitment of their fleet to full capacity and utilization to earn more money. However, it is the FAA’s responsibility to dictate regulations for the time it takes passenger and crew to depart an aircraft safely. There has to be a limit to the size of seats and their configuration on commercial airliners for pure safety reasons, not just passenger comfort.
These inevitable changes need to be debated by government entities, safety experts, consumer protection groups, and airlines, to maintain public trust and ensure safe transport of the population. While seat sizes may seem on the surface to be a trivial issue, they have a major impact on the safety of airline passengers. The FAA may be part of an inefficient government bureaucracy, but an aviation system void of its oversight is less safe.
R. Eric Jones is an assistant professor in the aviation and transportation department at Lewis University.