Traveling by airplane is worse than ever.
Thanks to a combination of labor shortages, covid infections and erratic weather, flight cancellations are so common that you can basically flip a coin to see if your flight still happens (though at least Southwest (LUV) – Get Southwest Airlines Company Report has now announced its flight credits will no longer expire.) Luggage is getting lost, people are fighting on planes and prices for airlines such as Delta (DAL) – Get Delta Air Lines Inc. Report and Spirit (SAVE) – Get Spirit Airlines Inc. Report continue to rise.
A lot of that can be attributed, in one way or another, to the slow return to “normal” after the covid pandemic. But even before that, flying was just becoming a deeply unpleasant experience. And a big reason why is that seat sizes are literally not what they used to be.
Because of consolidation in the airline industry and high fixed costs, it’s become common for airlines to sell more tickets than are available on a given flight. As a way to increase revenue and drive profits, and to free up more space for seats, the average size of an airline seat has steadily shrunk over the past 30 years (and some companies are suggesting ways to cram people even closer together).
As noted by CBS News, seat pitch, which is the measurement between one seat back and the same spot on the next seat back, has shrunk from 35 inches to nearly 31 “and in some cases as little as 28 inches.” Additionally, seat width has shrunk by four inches in the past 30 years.
The best case scenario is that, for the passenger, this makes for a cramped, uncomfortable flight, in which you literally rub elbows (and shoulders, and knees) with the possible stranger next to you, while the stranger in front of you reclines into your cloth.
But in the worst case scenario, the seats are too small for tall people, or passengers with a wider frame.
The non-profit airline consumer organization Flyers Rights has sued the Federal Aviation Administration for what it terms a “failure to establish minimum seat standards mandated by Congress more than three years ago.” The group estimates that only one in four passengers can fit in airline seats as they are currently situated.
In 2018, Congress told the FAA to “set the minimum standards for seat width and pitch, as part of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act,” according to Travel Weekly, but this hasn’t happened yet.
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But if the FAA hasn’t taken the action yet, they’ve now indicated that they are beginning to think about maybe doing something in the near future, and they’d love to hear your thoughts.
So What Do You Think About Seat Sizes?
As of this week, the FAA will seek public comment on “minimum seat dimensions and spacing on commercial aircraft,” per the blog The Points Guy.
However, it should be noted that the FAA is not really all that interested in how nice your flight experience is. Rather, its focus is on your safety. In fact, the agency has even stated it is not requesting your thoughts about “how the dimensions of passenger seats might relate to passenger comfort or convenience.”
As part of the organization’s safety mandate, all commercial airlines in the US must be laid out in such a way that all passengers can evacuate the plane within 90 seconds of an emergency situation. In 2019, the FAA ran several simulations to test seat safety at various sizes and pitches.
The FAA declared the simulations successful, but were later heavily criticized when it was revealed that “the test subjects only included able-bodied individuals ranging in age from 18 to 64, with almost all being younger than 60 years old,” so it did not include children, elderly people, and people with limited mobility and handicaps, all of whom are regularly on airplanes and might need a bit more time to evacuate.
Safety regulations exist for aisle width, emergency lighting, emergency exits, and evacuation slides, but there is currently no regulation related to a minimum seat size and pitch. Lobbying for discount airlines have frequently claimed that mandated minimum seat sizes could put them out of business, notes The Points Guy.
The FAA Isn’t Obligated To Do Anything
If you have thoughts on this matter, feel free to share them right at The Federal Register. The FAA has made it clear that “comments that include technical data and information will be the most helpful.”
Just know that FAA isn’t obliged to take any public comments provided into consideration, and for all we know, seat sizes could keep getting smaller, if there’s no law against that.
But public opinion could play a part in the congressional debate for the FAA Reauthorization Act in 2023.