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Bigger Passengers in Shrinking Plane Seats Raise Safety Alarms

Nov. 2, 2022, 9:34 AM

Cramped travelers and lawmakers on airplanes are trying to convince the Federal Aviation Administration that feeling squished is a safety risk.

“Overcrowding of the passenger cabin is the single largest threat to passengers’ health and safety,” Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, told the agency Tuesday.

Kidd’s comment was one of more than 24,000 submitted in response to an FAA request for feedback on the minimum airplane seat dimensions needed so passengers can evacuate safely. The agency said it didn’t want to hear how seat size affects “passenger comfort or convenience.” Yet many who commented contend tight seating raises safety risks beyond evacuations, such as blood clots, passenger conflicts, and even sexual assault.

Travel has picked up this year as more people took to the skies after Covid-19 precautions ended, and holiday travel is expected to be even busier.

Lawmakers have chastised the FAA and airlines for not giving passengers more space and a group of senators are now urging the agency to impose a “moratorium prohibiting additional reduction in seat size.” Congress directed the FAA to draw up rules on seat size for safety not more than a year after enacting a law in 2018, but lawmakers didn’t weigh in then on what the size should be.

“It is regrettable that more than three years after the deadline for issuing the rule, the FAA is just now collecting comments,” a half-dozen Democratic senators wrote in a letter to acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen on Tuesday, urging him to “immediately” ban shrinking seat sizes further.

More than 20 House Democrats, led by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), also raised red flags about reduced space, telling the agency the average seat pitch has shrunk to about 31 inches, compared with 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s. The average width has dropped to about 16 ½ inches from 18 inches decades ago.

Simultaneously, passengers are getting heavier. Doctors warn deep vein thrombosis can threaten passengers who don’t move their legs, and smaller seat pitches can increase that risk, they argued. “While seat sizes have been shrinking, the average size of Americans has been growing,” the House lawmakers wrote.

The increased pressure from lawmakers and passengers could force the agency to scrutinize seat sizes further and weigh a possible mandate, particularly as Congress works on legislation to reauthorize the FAA in 2023.

Evacuation Study

An FAA study published last year said tight seat designs don’t impede emergency evacuations, although it’s been criticized for omitting children, seniors, and passengers with disabilities. The agency also sent its research on the issue to Congress earlier this year.

Airlines have touted the FAA’s findings as a reason not to mandate dimensions. The FAA’s safety research and other experts have found “no basis” to go forward with issuing rules when it comes to seat dimensions, Airlines for America and the International Air Transport Association told the agency in its joint comments.

The National Air Carrier Association, which represents small and midsized airlines, argued the FAA met its statutory mandate by releasing a study, asking for comments, and — in line with the study’s findings — not putting forth a rule.

“Passenger comfort is an issue for the airline industry, not the FAA or Congress,” George Novak, NACA’s president and CEO, wrote.

Airbus SE told the agency it performed evacuation tests with different seat widths and pitches, and the varied measurements “did not influence the ability of passengers to move into the longitudinal aisle or the time needed to do so.”

‘People Are Bigger’

But the mass of passengers who commented by the FAA’s deadline Tuesday argued change is needed. The passenger group FlyersRights sampled more than 19,000 comments and found that about 98% favored minimum seat size regulations. The group also said the FAA should investigate how seat sizes affect personal space and sexual assault after the FBI warned of increases as people get back to post-pandemic travel.

An emergency evacuation study needs to be “reconducted to account for the realities of modern air travel” given that “people are bigger, seats are smaller, planes are fuller, and thus personal space on the aircraft has decreased,” the Association of Professional Flight Attendants told the FAA.

Travelers with disabilities are also concerned about the shrinking seat size and foot space. When passengers fly with service dogs, the reduced space can cause the handler’s feet and the service animal to get tangled and add time to exiting a row, Eric Buehlmann, deputy executive director for public policy at the National Disability Rights Network, told the agency.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has urged the agency for more than six years to mandate seat room, asked passengers to press for change, saying it is the top complaint he hears when talking to travelers.

“I take out the brochures and the booklets that the airlines have out of that little seat pocket because it gives me a quarter-inch more room for my knees,” Schumer said at a press conference last month.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com