Millions of Americans will honor a holiday tradition this week: they will squeeze into tiny seats aboard a jet aircraft, fly elsewhere to stuff themselves with food, and then squeeze back inside a jet aircraft feeling as if the seats have gotten even smaller in the meantime.
But passengers could soon get relief from the ever-shrinking airline seat, thanks to a recent measure passed by Congress. As airline seats continue to shrink and American waistlines grow, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, which was passed Oct. 3, included language directing the FAA to set regulatory standards on seat width.
The language says the FAA must set minimum seat widths and lengths as “necessary for the safety and health of passengers.” Likewise, the measure directs the FAA to set a minimum standard on seat pitch, which is the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a statement this month demanding that the FAA get cracking.
“That’s why I championed the law to combat the sardine-like packing of people and why I am demanding the FAA get to work on the plan to rein in the shrinking once and for all,” Schumer said.
The FAA has said, in effect, we’re moving, we’re moving. But not much more.
“We are aware of the provision on regulating seat dimensions in the FAA Reauthorization bill and we are working to address it," an FAA spokesman said in an email. "Since we are currently reviewing the legislation, we cannot comment on how we plan to implement any particular provision at this time.”
But Paul Hudson, who is president of FlyersRights.org, isn’t getting his hopes up for a quick fix. He said if the past is any guide, it’s going to take more than the bill to get the FAA to address the smaller seats, he said.
“There’s a history at the FAA of ignoring these kind of things, and missing deadlines by years. Even if they’re mandatory, there’s no penalty if they ignore it,” Hudson said. He said, for example, that since the 1990s, federal regulation has required overwing safety exits to have passageways that are at least 20 inches wide so people can exit quickly. Yet the FAA has also granted airlines exemptions from the standard. Meanwhile, almost everything in the cabin has become tighter.
“Over the years, they have not only shrunk seat sizes, they’ve reduced the depth of the [seat] cushion. They’ve shrunk the bathrooms. They’ve shrunk the aisles,” Hudson said. He said with some aisles no wider than 15 inches these days, some passengers have to walk almost sideways to navigate them.
This Thanksgiving is expected to break records, according to the industry and the Transportation Security Administration. TSA officials said 25 million people are expected to fly during the holiday this year, up 5 percent from 2017.
And while many travelers love cheap fares, their biggest complaint is that the airlines are cramming in so many bodies to keep the costs competitive. Schumer has said it’s the single biggest gripe he hears at the airport.
FlyersRights.org has been fighting for about three years now, both in rule-making petitions and in court, to compel the FAA to set minimum seat standards that take into account passenger safety and comfort.
The organization argues that the seats are risky for people’s health because they constrict the body’s circulation. The group also said the tightly packed cabins are potentially dangerous because such close quarters could hinder people from evacuating a plane in 90 seconds or less, the current federal standard airlines must meet for emergency evacuation.
So far, however, the FAA has seen no need to set a new standard. In response to the FlyersRights’ effort, the FAA says its engineers have determined that the current seat sizes, even at the their smallest, have had no adverse impact on the ability to evacuate an aircraft. If anything, it takes longer to clear and open the emergency exits and deploy the emergency slide, if necessary, than to get out of a seat and down the aisle, said Jeffrey C. Gardlin, a senior technical specialist at the FAA and an expert on cabin safety who addressed the FlyersRights petition.
“Barring injury to the passenger or the flight attendant, the time it takes a passenger to stand up for the seat will be less than the time it will take the flight attendant or another passenger to get the emergency exits opened and functional and for the line that begins forming in the aisle to clear,” Gardlin’s declaration says. It also says there is no evidence that a passenger’s girth meaningfully affects his or her ability to get out of a plane — which could be good news for those who overindulge this week.
In any event, Hudson said he’s not pessimistic about ultimately persuading the FAA to set minimum seat sizes. He’s just realistic.
“Up to now the [FAA] position is we don’t have to do anything — we’re not the Comfort Inn,” Hudson said.
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