At first glance, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Reauthorization Bill that was passed by Congress and signed into law last fall looked like it was a win for travelers tired of being sandwiched into ever-shrinking airplane seats. But according to consumer advocate groups and airline industry analysts, not only could the bill ultimately do little to change the status quo when it comes to the size of airplane seats but it could also even result in seats getting more cramped.
The bill’s primary purpose was to maintain the FAA’s funding, while at the same time establishing some new guidelines for airline regulations. One of the bill’s provisions required the FAA to issue regulations that would establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats on aircraft, “including minimums for seat pitch, width, and length, and that are necessary for the safety and health of passengers.”
In a hearing last week before Congress, Daniel Elwell, the FAA’s deputy administrator, provided an update. Elwell said that the FAA has 12 days of evacuation testing planned for this November involving 720 “live bodies” (aka real people—so not using simulators or computer models). He said that the goal is to establish what the necessary seat pitch, width, and length is, based on safety, later this year.
The FAA does not currently regulate seat sizes, something the nonprofit advocacy group FlyersRights.org tried to change when it filed a petition with the FAA in 2015. The organization requested that the FAA regulate seat sizes on the basis that the sharp reduction in size in passenger seating space, combined with increasing passenger size, is endangering the safety, health, and comfort of passengers.
FlyersRights.org argued that airline seats have been designed for people who are between 5’9” and 5’10” and are of average build. “Many Americans do not fit into this category,” the petition noted, citing data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the average size of Americans. After the FAA denied the petition, FlyersRights.org filed a petition with the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia in 2017, again requesting the FAA to regulate seat sizes. The court’s decision did not require the FAA to comply.
The FAA does, however, require that all airplanes be designed so that they can be evacuated within 90 seconds in the case of an emergency. In a letter in response to the FlyersRights.org court petition, the FAA stated that “recent tests show that passengers take no more than a second or two to get out of their seats, even from seats as narrow as 16 inches wide and installed as closely as at a 28-inch pitch.”
But in last week’s hearing, members of Congress voiced concern that those tests do not reflect the size of an average American.
“I’m not exactly a dainty guy. I want you to look around the room. There’s a lot of not-so-dainty people. I’m not sure the models being used really reflect current air travelers, certainly not in the United States,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.).
Seat pitch is the distance between a certain point on one seat and the exact same point on the seat in front of or behind it. Most of the major domestic carriers have a seat pitch that ranges between 30 inches and 38 inches, according to SeatGuru.com. Budget carriers Frontier and Spirit, however, have seat pitches as low as 28 inches.
“The FAA is not there to ensure your comfort, they’re there for safety,” said Christopher Elliott, founder of Elliott Advocacy, a consumer advocacy group. “If we can evacuate an airplane in 90 seconds with a 28-inch seat pitch, they’ll set the minimum to 28 inches.”
Elliott noted that there are many factors that could still come into play as we approach the one-year deadline (from the time the bill was established) for when the FAA was supposed to establish the new minimum seat dimensions. He said that the reason the seat-size provision even made it into the bill in the first place was due to political pressure, and he encouraged travelers to maintain that pressure by contacting the FAA to express their concerns.
But according to Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, “Unless the FAA changes its current position that existing shrunken seats are safe, that there are no significant adverse health effects, that it has no jurisdiction to regulate seats due to health affects anyway, and that any matter of comfort is none of its business, there will likely be no change.
“The FAA could even set seat size standards so low than it encourages further shrinkage,” he added.
In its letter in response to the FlyersRights.org petition, however, the FAA itself stated that it is unlikely that seat pitches will ever go below 27 inches.
The main concern, according to Samuel Engel, who is senior vice president and leads the aviation group at consulting firm ICF, is that carriers that currently have a minimum seat pitch of 30 inches or more will be motivated by a new 27- or 28-inch minimum to reduce their pitches in order to fit more passengers onboard and be more competitive with low-cost carriers.
The Bill Could Impact Fliers in Other Ways, Too
Beyond the seat-size issue, several other measures incorporated into the long and comprehensive FAA Reauthorization Bill could impact travelers as well. Those include:
- If a passenger is involuntarily denied boarding as the result of an oversold flight, the bill requires that carriers proactively pay compensation rather than waiting until the passenger requests that compensation.
- It will be considered an unfair or deceptive practice to involuntarily deplane a paying passenger once he or she is already on board.
- It requires carriers to better communicate accurate flight times and disruptions to passengers.
- It mandates that the government conduct a study on carriers’ overbooking policies and the impact they have on how much passengers pay.
- The airlines will also be asked to re-evaluate their sexual misconduct, and racial, ethnic, and religious nondiscrimination training.
- It makes it unlawful to put a live animal in an overhead bin.
“There is so much potential in this bill because we could conceivably see a much better picture for air travelers,” said Elliott, who was most excited about a provision in the bill that will create the role of an aviation consumer advocate, a person who would ideally be the voice in the FAA for airline passengers’ interests. “If there is a ray of hope that would be it,” he added.
But ultimately, ICF’s Engel said, it’s unlikely the bill will actually do much to change the domestic flying environment.
“I think a number of the parts of the bill that appear to be consumer-friendly, are more show than substance. It’s a mistake to think this bill will have a big impact on the consumer experience. A number of the provisions sound great to a consumer but don’t really change anything,” said Engel.
This article originally appeared on October 8, 2018, and was updated on October 4, 2019, to reflect current information.