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Everyone hates small airplane seats. Will they get bigger?

The FAA received more than 26,000 comments on the size of airline seats. What happens now?

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

“Cramped.” “Unsafe.” “Torture.”

Many of the more than 26,000 comments on the size of airline seats submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration during its recent public comment period, which closed last week, paint a bleak picture of the passenger experience on the nation’s largest airlines.

The FAA will now sift through those comments and decide whether to issue a rule on minimum seat dimensions. But as much as you may find economy seats uncomfortable, this review isn’t about luxury; the FAA is evaluating seat size for passenger safety during emergency evacuations.

“We will review all applicable comments. Our review has no set time frame,” an agency spokesperson told The Washington Post in an email Monday.

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What prompted the FAA review?

Airlines have pushed back on calls from consumer advocates and members of Congress to widen their seats, arguing that the seats are wide enough and far enough apart to allow for fast emergency evacuation, which the FAA has said is its primary reason for the seat size review.

Congress passed the Seat Egress in Air Travel Act, or Seat Act, as part of the FAA’s reauthorization bill that was signed into law in 2018, requiring the agency to issue regulations on minimum seat requirements “that are necessary for the safety of passengers.”

In response, the agency conducted simulated emergency evacuations and reviewed past incidents involving evacuations, neither of which found a need to increase seat sizes.

“The FAA has done and continues to conduct extensive review and research on evacuation standards, and there is no factual or data predicate that supports promulgating additional rules concerning aircraft seat dimensions,” wrote two industry trade groups for airlines, Airlines for America and the International Air Transport Association, in their public comment.

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Those simulated emergency evacuations have faced criticism, because they relied on healthy participants under age 60 and did not simulate the real-world conditions of an emergency, such as smoke in the cabin and passengers trying to grab their carry-ons. The Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General noted in 2020 that these simulations often do not account for the tightly packed seats on many airlines.

In an Oct. 27 letter to the FAA, 25 members of Congress called the evacuation study “deeply flawed” and urged the agency to analyze how seat dimensions impact “every demographic that was not represented” in the study.

The FAA wrote in a March letter to members of Congress that its studies had to be conducted in line with “regulatory and ethical standards for human testing,” and acknowledged that the studies “provide useful, but not necessarily definitive information.”

The agency said the public comment period — which ran from August to Nov. 1 — would allow it to better evaluate effects on all passengers, including “children, individuals over 60, and individuals with disabilities.”

What happens next?

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, said the FAA will probably “punt this decision down the road” amid intense pressure from the airline industry.

“The airlines do not want to be told by the FAA or any government agency how to run their business,” Harteveldt said. Airlines will probably argue that minimum seat requirements will result in higher fares for customers and set back their sustainability efforts, because more seats means less carbon output per passenger, he said.

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Harteveldt predicted that, at most, the FAA will set a floor for legroom “where the budget airlines are now,” such as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant.

Because FAA regulators are focused exclusively on safety, rather than passenger comfort, major regulatory action would have to be the result of a finding from a safety study that the tight seating is too difficult to evacuate, Harteveldt said.

He said the FAA needs to reconduct its evacuation tests with the legroom and seat width offered on budget airlines, a completely full cabin, carry-on baggage and a diverse set of passengers, including first-time fliers, elderly individuals, people with disabilities and travelers who do not speak English.

“Unless the FAA does a truly thorough, truly objective set of safety-related evacuation studies and bases its conclusion on that, then they have no grounds to make any decisions,” Harteveldt said.

William J. McGee, a senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project, said the tightness of modern aircraft seats is a “life-and-death safety issue.”

“The FAA has done a very poor job in recent years of overseeing the testing for emergency evacuation,” he said. “Obviously, this goes hand-in-hand with the issue of tighter seats.”

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In public comment to the FAA, McGee and other consumer advocates also argued that narrow seats pose a health risk because of the likelihood of deep vein thrombosis or exposure to food allergies from other passengers.

“We argued that health is a safety issue,” and thus under the purview of the FAA review, McGee said.

Can the FAA force airlines to make seats bigger?

Outside of FAA regulation, there are few ways to force airlines to increase the size of their seats, Harteveldt said. The FAA’s parent agency, the Transportation Department, has largely avoided regulating airlines’ commercial matters since deregulation in 1978, he said.

The only other mechanism by which seats might get wider is advancements in seat and plane construction. Airlines for America said in a statement that its member airlines, which include most U.S. mainline carriers, “continue to invest in a wide range of innovative technologies to maximize personal space in the cabin.”

Airbus recently announced a design change to its A350 aircraft that would reduce the thickness of its interior walls, allowing each seat to be 0.7 inches wider in a typical nine-abreast economy configuration, according to Reuters. Airlines, however, could also choose to use the additional space for a 10th seat in the row, resulting in all the seats being one inch narrower.

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“The days of being able to lounge comfortably in an economy-class seat that you feel is wide enough to be comfortable and offers enough legroom to be comfortable are long past,” Harteveldt said.

McGee recommended that travelers who are choosing a seat look up their flight on SeatGuru, which provides information on seat pitch (legroom) and width, as well as reviews of individual seats by other passengers.

McGee said that he was optimistic the recent review would “move the needle at the FAA,” but he warned that the agency failing to take action now could empower carriers to make their seats even smaller.

“If this goes the wrong way, then the airlines will look at that as carte blanche to do whatever they want with seating,” he said. “And if you think it’s bad now, it’ll only get worse.”

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