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Airline Safety And Smaller Seats

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Did you take a flight this summer? Have your knees recovered? Airline seats have grown smaller. The spaces between them have grown tighter, all while Americans have grown wider. It's made flying feel cramped and crowded. But are airlines less safe? A flyer's advocate group sued the Federal Aviation Administration, contending that the ever-tighter cabins are indeed unsafe. And a D.C. circuit court found they're right. But what does that mean for fliers? Clive Irving is an aviation correspondent for The Daily Beast and joins us now. Mr. Irving, thanks for being with us.

CLIVE IRVING: It's a pleasure to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Is it just harder to evacuate cramped planes?

IRVING: After the Flyers Rights action that you referred to, I decided to check into the whole regime of evacuation because we're specifically talking about how you get out of the plane alive. And I found out that the evacuation tests have been unchanged for, like, 40 or 50 years. So you have a system to test evacuation which bears no relation to the real world.

SIMON: I think a lot of coach passengers have discovered nowadays they can't even bend over and pick up their briefcase in front of the seat in front of them.

IRVING: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: And how would passengers brace, as they're supposed to, on impact?

IRVING: That's a good question because the card in the back of the seat which tells you what to do in a crash situation does include that brace position where you put your hands over your head and lean forward. Well, I tried this out in the space where it was only 28 inches between the rows. And it's basically impossible you can't brace for the crash. Now, it's interesting that I've found out in contrast to that that the regulations cover the space allowed for the flight attendants, who are obviously crucial in evacuating a plane in an emergency. Their seats have a specified what they call head strike space - in other words, a space that has to be left clear so that they don't strike the heads on anything - of 35 inches. So, in fact, no coach-class seat at the moment meets the standard that is applied for the flight attendants themselves.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the ruling of the D.C. circuit court. Could it really lead to some plausible change?

IRVING: What you've got here, Scott, is a situation where the airlines and the FAA can claim that they are compliant with regulations. And they are compliant with regulations because travel regulations themselves are not fit for purpose. And I think this Flyers Rights case has brought this to attention in a way that it's not been alerted before. So I hope that one result of this will be that we will now take a fresh look. And the first thing that should happen, I think, is there should be a moratorium on shrinking the seats and the space any further than it is.

SIMON: Clive Irving, who's the author of "Wide-Body: The Triumph Of The 747," thanks so much for being with us.

IRVING: It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.