Six US senators have urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to prohibit airlines from further reducing the size and legroom in airplane seats. The senators, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Richard Blumenthal, Edward Markey and Ron Wyden, said airlines have been reducing seat size since at least the 1990s, with seat pitch, which determines legroom, decreasing from 32 inches to 28 inches, and seat width decreasing from 19 inches to as little as 16 inches. Airlines have chosen to market cheap airfare to boost passenger demand at the expense of legroom.
“We urge the FAA to comprehensively review the safety factors that affect seat pitch, seat width and seat length and ensure that those safety factors take into account the entire American public, including children, seniors, people with disabilities and others,” the group of senators wrote to the FAA acting administrator Billy Nolen. “We urge the FAA to immediately prohibit any reduction in the size, width or pitch of seats on aircraft, the amount of legroom per seat and the width of aisles on such aircraft until a final rule is issued.”
Under pressure from Congress and passengers, the FAA is now looking into whether seats are too tight to rapidly evacuate an airplane. Current rules say airlines must be able to evacuate passengers within 90 seconds, but do not set seat size requirements. In July 2018, the FAA said it would not regulate seat size.
The public safety should be first and foremost, and it’s not.Steve Cohen, US Representative Tennessee
Airline margins could be affected if they had to reconfigure planes and eliminate seats. The FAA noted that it had released an aircraft cabin evacuation study in March 2022 and opened it for comment in August. The FAA received nearly 25,000 replies until it closed the comments section on November 1st. The FAA has not announced whether it will act in response.
Paul Hudson, president of passenger advocacy group FlyersRights, told CNN that since the FAA developed evacuation standards in 1967, the average American has grown about 30 pounds heavier and an inch or two taller, while airline seats have become smaller.
“Airlines only narrowly define safety as if it has something to do with evacuation speed,” Hudson told CNN. “But they ignore health risks, especially blood clots, which are known to increase dramatically when you’re in a confined space for more than two or three hours.”
Airlines for America, a group representing United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and others, and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said in written comments that they believe the FAA should not write regulations setting minimum seat dimensions, arguing that the agency “has thoroughly studied seat sizes and concluded that current passenger dimensions and configurations are safe.”
In 2018, Congress said the FAA had to issue regulations establishing minimum dimensions for passenger seats, including minimums for seat pitch, seat width and seat length, which are necessary for passenger safety. A US appeals court heard arguments from a flyer advocacy group urging it to order the FAA to set minimum seat dimensions for passenger aircraft.