Court orders FAA to review petition seeking airplane seat regulations

Court orders FAA to review petition seeking airplane seat regulations
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The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is forcing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to go back and consider regulating the size of airplane seats.

The court said the agency must review, for a second time, a rulemaking petition from the group Flyers Rights submitted on Aug. 26, 2015. 

The nonprofit group is concerned that airlines are putting the safety, health and comfort of airline passengers at risk by making seats smaller and closer together. The group and its president, Paul Hudson, asked the agency to set minimum requirements for seat sizes and spacing on commercial airplanes.

The agency, however, denied the group’s request, claiming the petition did not warrant action because the issues raised were “related to passenger health and comfort, and did not raise an immediate safety or security concern.”

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Regardless, the FAA claimed that emergency evacuation tests had been successfully run with seat dimensions as small as those being used by commercial airlines.

But the D.C. Circuit said Friday it couldn’t give the FAA the deference it traditionally affords agencies in rulemaking decisions because it never disclosed the results of those tests.

“Indeed, we have long held that, when ‘the data relied on by an agency in reaching its decision is not included in the administrative record and is not disclosed to the court,’ we cannot determine whether the final agency decision reflects the rational outcome of the agency’s consideration of all relevant factors,” the court said.

“Whatever deference we generally accord to administrative agencies, we will not defer to a declaration of fact that is ‘capable of exact proof’ but is unsupported by any evidence.”

The court ordered the administration to go back and review the group’s petition.

“If the petition for rulemaking is again denied, the administration must provide appropriate record support for its decision,” the court said.

The Flyers Group had asked the court to order the FAA to institute a rulemaking.

"That we will not do," the court said. “Our cases make clear that such a remedy is appropriate only ‘in the rarest and most compelling of circumstances.' "

— This story was updated at 12:52 p.m.