The 90 second Emergency Evacuation is a Performance-based Safety rule

FAA says:

We’re a safety agency, not a creature comfort agency

Flyers Right petitions for seat pitch/width rule

Court finds FAA rational for dismissal deficient 

2nd Dismissal more reasons

90 second rule is SAFETY Performance Based

You know you are in trouble when an opinion, signed by all three Circuit Judges, starts with the following sentence:

This is the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat.

Thus, began a US Court of Appeals decision, FLYERS RIGHTS EDUCATION FUND, INC., D/B/A FLYERSRIGHTS.ORG, AND PAUL HUDSON, PETITIONERS v. FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION, ET AL., RESPONDENTS, which instructed the FAA to reconsider its rejection of a petition for rulemaking. The Justices rejected the administration’s position as follows:

“The Administration denied the petition, asserting that seat spacing did not affect the safety or speed of passenger evacuations. To support that conclusion, the Administration pointed to (at best) off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters. That type of vaporous record will not do—the Administrative Procedure Act requires reasoned decision making grounded in actual evidence.”

In reviewing an administrative action, past court precedents established that the agency’s rational as stated in its denial of the Rulemaking Petition and supported in the briefs submitted to the appeals court. The three Justices made short shrift of the FAA’s arguments.

On the other hand (remember the opening the opening line), the opinion was impressed with the petitioner’s argument:

“In its petition, Flyers Rights provided evidence that commercial airline seat and spacing dimensions have steadily decreased in size over the last several decades. The petition noted that economy-class “seat pitch”—the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat directly in front of it—has decreased from an average of 35 inches to 31 inches, and in some airplanes has fallen as low as 28 inches. Evidence in the petition further indicated that average seat width has narrowed from approximately 18.5 inches in the early-2000s to 17 inches in the early- to mid-2010s. The petition also noted that, since the 1960s, the average American flyer had grown steadily larger in both height and girth. Flyers Rights expressed concern that the decrease in seat size, coupled with the increase in passenger size, imperiled passengers’ health and safety by slowing emergency egress and by causing deep vein thrombosis (a potentially fatal condition involving blood clots in the legs), as well as “soreness, stiffness, [and] other joint and muscle problems.” Pet. for Rulemaking 6.”

The FAA has replied to the Court’s remand with a seven page letter (technically a letter back to the Petitioners again declining to initiate a NPRM to consider the seat width issue) signed by Dorenda Baker in her role as Executive Director, Aircraft Certification Service. She is the senior FAA expert assigned to determine the airworthiness of commercial aircraft, inter alia­. Her reasons for once again refusing Flyers Rights’ request included:


  • A description of the regulations, policies, processes and actual performance (the docket now includes videos of actual manufacturer evacuation tests[1]) of the 900
  • An explanation of how passenger emotions, ages and dimensions are replicated in the Part 121 standards.
  • A statement that the issues raised by Flyers Rights do not merit prioritization within the FAA’s list of urgent safety matters.

Hopefully, Ms. Baker’s letter of rejection will satisfy the next judicial review (the lead petitioner has already hinted at the likelihood of another appeal.)

The FAA is authorized and is considered to be the best among the world of civil aviation authorities. The real point here is trying to set a seat standard is not directly relevant to the CRITICAL SAFETY factor—EGRESS in an adequately safe time. The 900 rule is PERFORMANCE BASED—does the configuration of the seats, rows, aisles and exits allow the passengers within the parameter. The width, height, weight, age and emotional state of any potential manifest constitute an infinite variable set.

Tests based on different pitches, seat widths, aisle lengths and exit shape would not create results any more relevant to safety performance. The scatter gram of elapsed time correlated against the individual dimensions proposed by Flyers Rights would not justify replacing the existing standards, which are used globally.


Perhaps, the biggest variable for egress was demonstrated by American Airlines Flight 383 (2016) in which the crew explained that the customers need to egress as soon as possible and instead they took time to get their carry-on baggage and try to exit with their possessions through the exit doors and down the slides. The elapsed time for the 170 passengers and crew was 2 minutes and 210! That abnormal/irrational event has been cited as a basis for reevaluating the 900 rule.

The logic of the Petitioners would be to prove its thesis with an aircraft with an all first-class seating and exit windows at every seat. The results would produce the optimal numbers in Flyers Rights’ opinion. However, the passengers able to pay the fare would be less than the universe of people who could afford to fly on the Concorde.














The FAA is in the business of regulating aviation safety. The 900 rule provides a reasonable, rational regulation. If the Petitioners or Congress want to set rules for seat pitch and width, Consumer Reports and/or Underwriters Laboratory may have the skills to assess the comfort of passengers. The FAA has more than enough on its plate.


[1] WIRED has an excellent article on an evacuation of a mammoth a-389, which is depicted in the above picture- How Long Does it Really Take to Evacuate a Plane?