Airlines are packing seats tighter than ever, and new tests are showing that passengers might not be able to get out alive if there is a crash. The FAA has been coy about making the results public, but a court warns there is “a plausible life-and-death safety concern.”

A recent investigation by the Daily Beast finds:

• Most tests carried out to ensure that all the passengers can safely exit a cabin in an emergency are dangerously outdated and do not reflect how densely packed coach class seating has become.

• No coach class seat meets the Department of Transportation’s own standard for the space required to make a flight attendant’s seat safe in an emergency.

• Neither Boeing nor the Federal Aviation Administration will disclose the evacuation test data for the newest versions of the Boeing 737, the most widely used jet.

In a case brought by the non-profit activist group Flyers Rights and heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a judge said there was “a plausible life-and-death safety concern” about what is called the “densification” of seats in coach.

The court ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to respond to a petition filed by Flyers Rights to promulgate new rules to deal with safety issues created by shrinking seat sizes and space in coach class cabins.

Furthermore, the court complained that the FAA had used outdated studies to argue that no change was needed in the way emergency evacuation tests are carried out—and, at the same time, had refused to release details of the test results because they involved proprietary data.

It is always difficult to get people to recognize the potential for disaster if the disaster has yet to happen. Of special concern are the narrowness of aisles and overcrowding. Another risk to be aware of in cramped spaces is Deep Vein Thrombosis, or blood clotting caused by lack of limb movement. This can be deadly for young and old passengers alike. As many as 900,000 people in the U.S. are affected every year, including Regis Philbin, Serena Williams, and journalist David Bloom. This is no laughing matter.

The danger now is complacency. Accidents frequently expose a pattern of converging factors that is not detected until it is too late. The convergence of the “densification” of coach class seating and the expansion in the girth of passengers has all the signs of introducing a new level of risk. Flyers Rights wants the FAA to place a moratorium “on any further reductions in seat size, width, pitch and padding and aisle width” and to appoint an advisory committee or task force to set new standards for seat and passenger space.

The court gave the FAA until Dec. 28 to respond.

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