This may turn out to be a victory for the portion of the public who take commercial airline flights (in economy class), but even if so it will be a small victory. A judge hearing a case involving the “mystery of the incredible shrinking airline seat” has ordered the FAA to dig further into the subject with the nation’s major airlines. At the heart of the case is the question of whether the airlines are now packing us into planes like sardines to the point where it could affect passenger safety in the event of an emergency where you need to exit the plane quickly. (Reuters)

U.S. aviation authorities were ordered back to the drawing board on Friday to solve what a federal appeals judge called “The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat.”

Judge Patricia Millett told the Federal Aviation Administration to take another look at an advocacy group’s assertion that shrinking airline seats are imperiling passenger safety.

The judge rejected the FAA’s argument that seat size was unimportant to getting off the plane in an emergency.

“That makes no sense,” she wrote for the three-judge panel, likening the rationale to doing “a study on tooth decay that only recorded participants’ sugar consumption” but did not look at brushing and flossing.

There are two elements to this story which you need to keep an eye on. One of them deals with common sense (and perhaps decency) while the other speaks to the problem of a swamp in Washington which is yet to be significantly drained.

Speaking to the first point, the Judge seems to be saying something which is completely obvious. Industry records show that “seat pitch” (the distance from one seat to the identical point on the next seat in front of or behind it) has, over the past twenty years, decreased from an average of 35 inches to 31 inches and, in some cases, as little as 28. If you fly with any frequency you already knew that and are likely screaming mad about it. At some point, packing people in that tightly is obviously going to impact how quickly and easily you can get out of a fully loaded plane and to one of the emergency exits.

But the second point to make here is the fact that the FAA is taking part in these proceedings and they’re arguing on the side of the airlines and against the passengers. The FAA is arguing that, “seat size was unimportant to getting off the plane in an emergency.” This is simply jaw-dropping. I’ve been discussing the unrelated question of Bill Shuster’s plan to “privatize” air traffic control here for some time, turning it over to an entity controlled by the airline industry and its unions, and we’ve seen the same problem in that debate. The FAA is infested with people who come straight out of the industry advocacy group Airlines for America. And when it comes to passenger safety, comfort and convenience, believe me… these people are not your friends.

Unfortunately, at least thus far, the court (and the government) are only willing to get involved in this question as it pertains to safety. In other words, they may step in and stop the airlines from sandwiching you in any tighter if it might kill you. The question of how horrible the conditions are on the flights is not being considered. And, for the gazillionth time, the real solution to that problem isn’t going to come from a court order. We need more competition in the airline industry so the major companies might actually start trying to treat passengers like actual human beings rather than luggage (which they lose on a regular basis anyway) in the interest of attracting more customers and actually beating their competition. And that’s not going to happen until Washington stops approving one merger after another and possibly even breaks up a few of the bigger ones to create this badly needed competition in the market.