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Airlines’ Shrinking Seat Space May Increase Likelihood of Head Injuries

While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has addressed protection from head injuries for flight attendants, according to a recent article, it has not addressed the impact of shrinking seat designs on the safety of passengers. A second article states that no seat in coach meets the FAA’s standards for the space required for flight attendant seat safety.

Graphic Sheds Light on Impact of Smaller Seats and Rows on Safety

Embedded in the regulations governing commercial airline safety is a graphic that may offer evidence that smaller seats and rows on airplanes may affect passengers’ safety. The DOT graphic shows the “head strike zone” for a seated flight attendant and is intended to offer guidance on seat design to reduce the risk of injury to flight attendants during takeoff and landing but apparently a similar analysis has not been undertaken as to passengers.

The head strike zone is the space that must be kept clear so that the occupant’s head avoids contact with an adjacent seat in the event of an impact. The graphic suggests that shortening the distance between passenger seat rows may have increased the likelihood of a passenger suffering head trauma from the seat in front.

Lawsuit Seeks FAA Rules on Minimum Seat and Aisle Sizes

FlyersRights.Org filed a petition for rulemaking requesting that the FAA set rules on minimum seat and aisle sizes. In its petition, FlyersRights.org documented that economy class seat pitch, that is the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it has shrunk from an average of 35 inches to 31 inches and in some airplanes, 28 inches. Among other things, FlyersRights.Org argues that passengers may not be able to evacuate quickly in a crash due to the cramped seating. Another concern is the risk of passengers developing potentially dangerous blood clots in their legs.

The FAA declined to draw up regulations on seat size, arguing that its rulemaking authority does not extend to comfort – and that safety tests indicate the smaller seats pose no danger. The FAA also maintains that flight attendants and passengers have the same injury protection regulations.

FlyersRights.Org filed a petition for review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, challenging the FAA’s refusal to engage in rulemaking and its unsupported conclusions about passenger seat safety. In recent opinion, the Court ordered the FAA to reexamine whether shrinking seats have safety consequences and to provide scientific evidence as to why narrower aisles and tighter seats are not safety issues.

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About this Author

Bruce Stern, Accident Attorney, Stark Law Firm
Shareholder

Bruce H. Stern is a Shareholder and member of the Accident & Personal Injury Group, where he concentrates his practice in the area of traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries and wrongful death. In July 2004, Mr. Stern began publishing Traumatic Brain Injury Law Blog as a way to share his knowledge in the field of brain injury law. Additionally, Mr. Stern is the author of numerous articles and a frequent lecturer on the subject of traumatic brain injury litigation, evidence and trial techniques. He also co-authored a book entitled "Litigating Brain Injuries"...

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