A provision tucked into the US House’s FAA reauthorization bill would require the agency to regulate airline seat sizes.

FAA said in early July there was no evidence that higher-capacity seat configurations would prevent passengers from evacuating in an emergency within the required minimum times.

But the House bill would instruct FAA to establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats on aircraft operated by carriers flying within the US. The rules would include minimums for seat pitch, width and length that lawmakers say are necessary for the safety and health of passengers.

Alison McAfee, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, citing the FAA’s June 2 letter to FlyersRights.org, said FAA’s judgment that seating dimensions of US airlines “meet or exceed federal safety standards”  was correct.

“We believe market forces should ultimately determine whether the industry is meeting customers’ expectations, rather than government regulation,” McAfee said. “Travelers reserve the right to choose who they give their business to, which route best serves their needs, and which variety of service options they value most.”

Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia said such a rule could potentially lead LCCs to raise fares if their costs increased. “It would reduce consumer choice, especially at the very bottom end of the market,” he said. “For most carriers, it won’t make a huge difference, but it would probably harm [the competitiveness of] the ultra-low-cost carriers.”

Separately, the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Inspector General is conducting an audit on FAA’s oversight of aircraft evacuation procedures. The probe is aiming to determine whether passengers can safely evacuate aircraft in 90 seconds—the legal standard—in light of industry changes such as increasing numbers of passenger seats, reduced dimensions and a greater reliance on carry-on luggage.

FAA, in a July 2 letter to FlyersRights.org, informed the passenger organization of its decision to deny the group’s petition seeking a rulemaking on airline seat dimensions. In July 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered FAA to provide the group with a “properly reasoned disposition of safety concerns about the adverse impact of decreased seat dimensions and increased passenger size on aircraft emergency egress.”

The six-page letter from Dorenda Baker, executive director of FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service, stated: “The reason that seat width and pitch, even in combination with increasing passenger size, do not hamper the speed of an evacuation is the timeline and sequence of the evacuation.”

But with Congress gearing up to pass legislation reauthorizing FAA before an Oct. 1 funding deadline, as well as the DOT Inspector General’s ongoing probe into FAA’s oversight of safe and timely aircraft evacuations, the agency potentially could be forced to follow through with regulatory action on seat size.

Ben Goldstein, Ben.Goldsetin@aviationweek.com