The average distance between rows of economy class seats has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. (iStock)

Congress is considering a freeze on the airline industry’s shrinking coach seats, an unprecedented move that could lead to a more comfortable and humane flying experience. A proposed amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Bill would direct the federal government to set minimum seat-size standards for the first time, over the airline industry’s objections.

The average distance between rows of economy-class seats has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has also shriveled from 18 inches to about 16  1/2 inches.

“Shrinking seats raise safety and health concerns,” said Steve Cohen (D.-Tenn.), who introduced the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act this week. On Tuesday, Cohen, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced he would introduce the language into the FAA bill moving through the House. A hearing is set for Thursday to consider amendments to the bill.

The airline industry vowed to fight the proposal.

“We believe the government’s role in seat sizes for all forms of transportation — car, bus, rail and air — is to determine what is safe,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for A4A, an airline trade group. “The FAA has made that determination. As the safest mode of transportation, safety is always our highest priority.”

The airline industry doesn’t want government to regulate seat size, “but instead market forces, which reflect consumer decisions, and competition should determine what is offered,” Medina says.

“Those offerings are one component of what drives competition and product differentiation among airlines,” she added. “And as with any commercial product or service, customers vote every day with their wallet.”

Medina noted that the Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection decided not to make a recommendation on seat sizes last year. Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, who is the consumer representative on the committee, said the issue proved to be “too complex” to be addressed at the committee level and that the group urged the FAA to conduct additional evacuation testing on the current seat sizes.

Cohen says the FAA hasn’t made a determination about seat size and needs to act now.

“The FAA requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency, yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s smaller seats,” he says. He also added that there are health risks to flying in smaller seats. Medical professionals, he noted, warn that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who can’t move their legs during longer flights.

“Consumers are tired of being squeezed both physically and fiscally by airlines,” he added.

Consumer groups cheered the proposal. Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, called the amendment “a very pro-consumer” reform.

“At a time when airlines are enjoying record profits, thanks to cheap fuel and ridiculous fees, it’s outrageous that the carriers would seek to squeeze consumers even more, literally,” he said. “We think it’s especially important for the safety of the flying public that Representative Cohen raised the emergency evacuation issue. It could be disastrous if we only find out during the next airline accident that packing consumers into coach seats like sardines has compromised passenger safety.”

Calls for minimum seat standards have been growing louder in the recent past. As airline profits have risen, the amount of personal space given to passengers in economy class has dwindled.

The SEAT Act directs the transportation secretary to issue a new regulation that establishes minimum dimensions (including width, length and seat pitch) for passenger seats on aircraft operated by any air carrier in the provision of interstate or intrastate air transportation. Although no one has formally mentioned dimensions, the commonly accepted numbers are 34 inches of seat pitch — generally, the distance from any point on one seat to the same point on the seat in front of or behind it — and 18 inches of width.

Under the proposed amendment, those numbers would be set only after a lengthy DOT rulemaking process. All of which means the earliest passengers could see bigger airline seats is 2018 — assuming the FAA bill isn’t extended again. The centerpiece of the bill is an effort to privatize air traffic control, a contentious issue that could make the bill, at least in its current form, difficult to pass.

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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