Trust us on the size of your seat, say airlines.

News that the US Federal Aviation Administration won't set minimum standards for aircraft seats will be a relief to them.

The airlines have long pushed back on regulation covering the way they configure their cabins, saying that within safety rules, they want to give passengers the opportunity to be squeezed into cramped cabins if they want.

While it is a US agency, the FAA effectively sets safety rules throughout the airline industry. This week it said it would continue to do just that, not set rules for creature comforts.


Passenger lobby group FlyersRights had gone to court to get the agency to act, saying cramped planes and the larger size of today's passengers meant there was now a risk people couldn't get off a plane in the required 90 seconds with half the exits blocked, as required.

But the FAA said it saw no immediate safety issue that required new regulations, citing seven recent accidents in which passengers were able to get off a plane in time.

That won't satisfy some, but accidents requiring planes to be evacuated are extremely rare. However, the pain of sitting in cramped cabins is a daily reality for most of the world's 4.1 billion flyers each year.

The judge who ordered the FAA review talked of the ''Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat'' based on FlyersRights' evidence that seat pitch — the distance between them — had shrunk from 35 inches (89cm) before the US industry was deregulated to 31 inches on average now, with some at 28 inches. Seat width has also dropped from the previous 18-inch average.

But airlines justifiably point to the cost of travel, which has shrunk too. International Air Transport Association (IATA) figures show that in real terms, fares have fallen by nearly 60 per cent around the world in the past 20 years.

While airlines in this region are a little more generous with seat size than those in the US, where aerial commuting is a joyless slog, the trend is just the same.

IATA's annual meeting in Sydney last month was hosted by Qantas, whose chief executive Alan Joyce said flying was all about choice.

''The last thing we want to do is get to one size fits all and everybody pays the same. It would put airlines back to where they were 20 years ago because the regulator has come in thinking they've done the right thing.''

What next, he asked. Prescribed seat sizes on trams and trains?

Joyce cheerfully added that at his size, for five years he fitted comfortably into the densely kitted out economy cabins of Jetstar, an airline he led.

And with the range of airlines, he said there was a great choice of first and business class if that was what you wanted.

That's fine, but only about 5 per cent of passengers fly there. For most flyers, there's no sign of any regulator helping them stretch out.