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FAA Changes Regulation Covering Front Row Aircraft Seating; Aircraft Certification Employees Voice Safety Concerns - (12/19/2006)

CONTACT:     Tomaso DiPaolo, 708-421-1225; Mike McRae, 360-790-3124

WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration, bypassing the required regulatory process in changing its interpretation of a safety regulation that had been protecting most front row seat passengers from serious head injury since 1988, has set a dangerous precedent by declaring the move a “policy change,” and forced its aircraft certification employees to certify new aircraft to a lower safety standard, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents the employees.  

The regulation at issue is 14 CFR 25.562(c), and the FAA has changed it to stop assuring head impact protection for those front row seat passengers taller than approximately 5-foot-9. This will allow seating designs that bring the first rows closer to the bulkheads, potentially resulting in a taller passenger's head striking the bulkhead wall in the event of an incident that forces passengers forward in a violent fashion. 

"If you are taller than 5-foot-9, you may want to avoid sitting in the front row of the next generation of commercial aircraft," said Tomaso DiPaolo, who represents the FAA's aircraft certification employees for NATCA. "Instead of standing up to the industry it is entrusted to regulate, the FAA chose to endorse this unwarranted reduction in public safety and our employees want to know this change is occurring without their expertise or approval.” 

DiPaolo said “Many of the FAA’s own Aircraft Certification Engineers, which NATCA represents, opposed this change. In fact, on behalf of those engineers, NATCA submitted formal comments in opposition to this change. The referenced safety regulation states in part that, ‘each occupant must be protected from serious head injury.’ In the FAA's response to NATCA's comments, the agency conceded that the ‘range of occupants’ considered when interpreting the term ‘each occupant’ has consistently been between the five percent female on the small side and the 95 percent male on the large side, but that under the new policy the level of protection provided to those occupants larger than an average male will simply not be evaluated.” 

The FAA, in its response to NATCA’s comments, also quotes the airlines as saying “a few inches of floor space is very valuable,” DiPaolo said. "The FAA appears to have adopted a new 'don't ask, don't tell' policy for taller passengers to simply give the airlines those two to three inches. For the last 20 years, there have been clear and consistent engineering principles being applied to protect a majority of aircraft passengers. Now those principles are being thrown out the window because the FAA has decided that assuring such protection ‘is a business decision on the part of the Industry’." 

“We’re concerned this is going to be a safety hazard you’re not going to notice and the FAA won’t even go so far as to require a sign on the bulkhead to warn taller passengers of the danger. At least in your car you get airbags, a shoulder harness and padding, why should you expect less impact protection in a modern commercial airplane? Who is the FAA protecting with this kind of decision-making? It’s certainly not the traveling public,” DiPaolo said.  

Concluded DiPaolo: "Such a substantive change should at least have been presented to the public as rulemaking, not as simply a 'policy' change. This apparent abuse of legal discretion could come back to haunt taxpayers, as well as the FAA, not only in the form of reduced safety, but also increased liability. If allowed to stand, this could also embolden the FAA to do even more unilateral rulemaking outside the proper public process. Consequently, NATCA wants to see this situation rectified as soon as possible." 

For a more detailed discussion of this issue from NATCA, please go to:


A copy of the new policy, all of our comments and the FAA’s full response to those comments are all available on the Web at:




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