File photo: Passengers advocate groups and members of Congress want the FAA to set minimum standards for airline’s ever-shrinking seats

Sen. Chuck Schumer is not going to take airline cruelty sitting down.

The New York Democrat has joined a host of human pretzels and other frequently folded flyers to ask the Federal Aviation Administration to set standards for roomier seating on commercial airlines.

“When talking to travelers, the number one complaint I hear is shrinking legroom and cramped seats,” Schumer said in a statement. “Consumers are tired of being packed into airplanes like sardines, and so, it’s time for the FAA to step up and stop this deep-seated problem from continuing.”

Schumer is not the only guy to find a pun or feel the pinch here. Earlier this month, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act to require the FAA to set minimum seating standards. “Consumers are tired of being squeezed both physically and fiscally by airlines,” he said in a news release.

For years now, airplane seating has evolved in inverse relationship to the size of our TV screens. In the 1970s, the average distance between seat rows was 35 inches, Schumer said. Today’s it’s about 16.5 inches – or about 6 1/2 inches larger than the dimensions of RCA’s first mass-produced television screen in the 1940s. Think  of that in front of your 60-inch screen.

So far, however, the federal government has failed to do anything about the ever-shrinking airline seat, and so the people who in another era would have been designing circus cages and torture devices now amuse themselves finding ingenious ways to stuff more and more flesh into tinier and tinier places. The airlines would use folding chairs if they could.

What’s particularly galling–as Schumer and others have noted–is that the airlines have been feasting on profits while putting the squeeze on passengers. Fuel prices haven’t been this low in years, yet fares remain high and cabins cramped. Several organizations that advocate for passengers’ rights predict that the seats will shrink to the size of toadstools so that the airlines can upcharge for additional legroom.

Overcrowding on one of the most important forms of transportation in the United States isn’t a new problem. In the early 1800s, ship masters crammed so many passengers into steerage that people became sick, even fatally so, according to Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers. Congress bestirred itself to action in 1819 with the Passenger Act. But Kidd and other advocates may be forgiven for feeling that the federal government has been slow to act ever since.

Michael Cintron, director of consumer and travel industry affairs for the International Airline Passenger Association (IAPA) said it’s not so much the dimensions of the seat itself that make people feel claustrophobic.

“The cramped feeling is not just in the seat, but in the sheer number of passengers crowding aircraft cabins recently,” Cintron said in an email.  If anything, the airline industry is looking to add capacity, he said.

“They are doing this in crafty ways,” Cintron said.  “Seats being offered on the newest planes are thinner, with less padding.”

Yet, the industry claims that little-to-no space has been lost because the new seats have been “sculpted” to give passengers the same leg room, he said. Instead of reclining, seats now “slide,” which takes the body down and forward “into a semi-slouched position to mimic the recline of traditional airline seats,”  he said.

But the most important part of the configuration is “seat pitch,” which is the distance between one seat and the same exact point on another seat in front of or behind it. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that seat pitch has shrunk because airlines have jammed the rows closer together.

No wonder passenger advocates have called on the FAA to set rules on minimum seat and aisle sizes.

“Besides the comfort issue – which the airlines have pooh poohed – there are health and safety risks,” said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org.

It’s hard to evacuate when you’re sharing your leg with several other passengers. And there’s a greater risk of developing blood clots when a person’s folded like origami for several hours at high altitude. This can be especially dangerous if a clot forms in the legs and travels to the lungs.

Last year, FlyersRights.org petitioned the FAA not only to draw up minimum standards, but also to impose a moratorium on reducing seat sizes further.

“We need a moratorium because the airlines are aggressively shrinking [seats] more and more,” said Hudson, a semi-retired New York lawyer who has served on the FAA’s aviation rule-making advisory committee for about 20 years.

His group’s Aug. 26 petition urged the FAA to take action in the name of passenger health, comfort and safety, including the ability of passengers to evacuate in case of emergency.

Dorenda D. Baker, director of the FAA’s aircraft certification service, denied the group’s rule-making petition, saying current standards are safe.

Baker also said in her Feb. 1 decision that the risk of clotting — known as deep vein thrombosis — was no higher for economy-class passengers than those in business class, and that getting up and moving around is more important than a person’s seating configuration. Baker also said the FAA was obligated to weigh costs and benefits when considering new regulations, and that imposing minimum standards on seating would impose a great financial burden with little payoff for safety.

“The FAA regulates airline cabin issues dealing with safety,” Jenny Rosenberg, FAA assistant administrator for communications, said Tuesday in a written statement. “The denial included a detailed safety analysis showing why we did not agree with the evacuation safety benefits claimed by the petitioner.”

Our request to interview Baker was denied.

Hudson said he wasn’t surprised that the FAA shot down the petition on seating.   He said neither the FAA  nor  Congress has taken action on the topic because both have been very cozy for a very long time in the industry’s lap.

“They’re captured by the industry. They’re completely captured,” Hudson said.

To date, the FAA has never granted a waiver request or exemption to a passenger’s rights organization, Hudson said — an assertion confirmed Tuesday by an FAA spokesman.

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, doesn’t like the idea of the FAA writing regulations on seat size.

“We continue to believe the government’s role in seat sizes for all forms of transportation (car, bus, rail and air) is to determine what is safe. The FAA has made that determination,” A4A spokeswoman Melanie Hinton said in an email. She noted that the federal Transportation Department’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection also decided against making a recommendation on seat sizes.

“[I]nstead, market forces–which reflect consumer decisions–and competition should determine what is offered,” she wrote. “And as with any commercial product or service, customers vote every day with their wallet.”

Hinton, citing an article in trade publication Runway Girl Network, also said comparisons of seat pitch now and 40-some years ago won’t fly. For one thing, the article says new seat backs are thinner (cf. folding chairs, above). The article also takes to task Rep. Cohen’s claim of a 16.5-inch seat, nothing this skimpy exists anywhere except on a Malaysian long-haul carrier.

What’s the FAA have to say about Sen. Schumer’s proposal?

“We look forward to reviewing the proposal, but we can’t comment on pending legislation,” an FAA spokesman said Monday.

Sounds like they’re on the edge of their seats…

This post has been updated.