Are Airplane Seats Too Small? The FAA Launches Review and Gets an Earful

Fed up with packed airplanes, tight legroom, and pint-sized coach seats? The U.S. government wants to hear from you.

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Photo by Al Soot/Unsplash

On behalf of passenger legs and backs across the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration announced on August 3 that it was seeking public comments on whether the agency should set minimum dimensions for airplane seats—not only the space between rows, or seat pitch, but the width and length of the seat itself. The FAA is focusing on the safety of these layouts, mainly the ability of fliers to get in and out of their seats in the event of an emergency. Under current rules,, airplane makers must prove that a full planeload can be evacuated in 90 seconds.

Fliers hoping for a more comfortable ride soon, though, may have to wait: The FAA says its mandate doesn’t extend beyond safety, and it noted that it isn’t interested in comments on the “unrelated” issues of passenger comfort or convenience. But many people believe they are related, judging from the nearly 5,000 comments posted less than a week after the announcement, well ahead of the November 1 deadline.

Unsurprisingly, there were a slew of rants from frustrated fliers. “Airplane seat sizes are ridiculously small and uncomfortable,” wrote one person who posted as “Anonymous.” “You can barely move, much less cross your legs, and if you can even recline it is frowned upon,” said another. “There is nothing safe about jamming people in like sardines.”

Another self-described “tall” passenger noted that seat pitch has shrunk—the average is around 30 inches but is as narrow as 28 inches on some budget airlines—and complained that airlines are now using their wider exit rows “as another money maker.” Others griped about their seat’s width, which in economy class currently ranges from 17 to 18 inches. “I have to squeeze into the seat,” wrote one commenter, suggesting that “the arm on the aisle seats should be allowed to lift for better access in and out.”

If you’re getting a sense of déjà vu reading this, it’s because this issue has been kicking around for years. It dates back to 2018 when Congress passed a massive FAA authorization bill that, among other provisions, ordered the agency’s administrator to draw up regulations to establish minimum standards for seat size, seat width, and the width of aisles—something it had never done before. The FAA was also required to get input on the seat issue from disparate sources like the Centers for Disease Control, passenger advocacy groups, and ergonomic engineers.

No other form of transportation—trains, buses, boats—forces you to give up your mobility device when you board.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg

The FAA did study evacuation data and did some tests. After deadlines passed and no standards emerged, consumer group Flyers Rights filed a petition in January 2022 in federal court to force the agency to live up to the law.

“Enough is enough,” FlyersRights.org President Paul Hudson said at the time. “The FAA has had three years to address this important safety issue,” adding that “shrinking seat size can pose safety and health risks, including for emergency evacuations.”

Whether the FAA’s latest move will lead to some long-awaited standards is anyone’s guess. Passenger advocates were concerned when the FAA submitted a letter to Congress in March, suggesting that simulated aircraft evacuations conducted in 2019 and 2020 showed seating “did not adversely affect the success” of these tests. “I don’t understand how the FAA, which is responsible for our safety, is saying this isn’t a problem,” says William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project and author of the book Attention All Passengers. Setting a minimum on seat pitch might be a start, he said, but “in the past, the can always gets kicked down the road.”

That can may not land too far this time. Air travel woes have apparently gotten the attention of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who’s pushed for new protections on family seating and other issues and has spoken out about the rights of disabled passengers. In recent comments marking the anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Buttigieg said he would support a proposal to allow passengers to remain in their wheelchairs during flights, a move that would likely require airlines to remove several rows of seats to create the necessary space. “No other form of transportation—trains, buses, boats—forces you to give up your mobility device when you board,” he said, although he conceded that “we know this won’t happen overnight.”

That may be an understatement: A follow-up statement released by the DOT pointed out that further testing would be needed “to understand how a secured personal wheelchair can meet the crashworthiness and other relevant safety requirements of FAA.”

Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.