Will the FAA regulate airline seat size? Don’t count on it

It’s been 18 months since the Federal Aviation Administration invited the public to weigh in on airline seats, inspiring a flood of anecdotes about sore knees, poor circulation, and cramped conditions. But travelers hoping those stories might lead to sweeping regulations forcing airlines to bring more legroom into coach might be waiting a while.

As lawmakers last week moved a step closer to passing a law that would fund the FAA and chart its course for the coming years, the regulator’s chief seemed to signal far-reaching action on seat size is unlikely.

Many of the 26,000 commenters that weighed in on airline seat dimensions between August and November 2022 missed the mark, FAA administrator Michael Whitaker suggested while providing testimony for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Aviation on Feb. 6.

“A lot of the comments focused on ‘I want more legroom’ type comments, versus safety provisions,” Whitaker testified. “I think it’s important for us to make the distinction between what might be an economic regulation, and what’s a safety regulation.”

Indeed, the FAA’s interest in hearing from travelers in 2022 was about safety — not comfort. In fact, that very request for comments specifically noted its focus on “minimum seat dimensions necessary for safety of air passengers,” as it relates to emergency evacuations.

It was part of a larger safety-focused effort the agency has undertaken in recent years to determine whether conditions on board commercial aircraft make the evacuation of every person, within 90 seconds, feasible.

It’s a standard the FAA set out to test several years ago through emergency evacuation simulations. But the study’s completeness — or lack thereof — has since drawn bipartisan scrutiny.

Lawmakers have criticized past simulations as unrealistic since they omitted factors common on virtually every flight — from the presence of carry-on bags to service animals, young children, older travelers, passengers with disabilities and those who do not speak English as a first language.

Citing those concerns, lawmakers in the House and Senate drew up legislation calling for a more thorough look at evacuation standards, TPG reported in late 2022.

Today, provisions from those bills are largely included in the House’s FAA Reauthorization bill approved last summer and in the Senate’s version that received committee approval on Feb. 8.

Once fully passed, the FAA could be tasked with taking a deeper look at evacuation standards and key factors that might affect safety, including current aircraft seat dimension and pitch (the latter is the measurement from a fixed point on one seat to the same point on the seat in front of it and is generally considered a proxy measurement for legroom).

Still, it’s unclear whether that would ultimately lead the FAA to dictate minimum seat dimensions to airlines.

After all, that hasn’t been the overarching goal of this effort, a top voice on evacuation standards once acknowledged to TPG.

“I didn’t write my legislation because of the seat size and pitch issue,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, said in a late 2022 interview with senior aviation business reporter David Slotnick.

One thing is certain: Nothing will happen until the FAA Reauthorization bill fully clears Congress and gets a signature from President Joe Biden, setting the agency’s funding levels and scores of key policy directives for the coming years.

Already, though, the consumer advocacy group FlyersRights, a longtime advocate for stricter airline seat size regulations, appears resigned to the notion that sweeping seat-related changes are not likely on the horizon.

“The current draft of the Senate bill does not include many of the passenger protection and safety provisions supported by a group of national airline passenger and consumer protection organizations,” FlyersRights president Paul Hudson argued in a Feb. 7 statement, bemoaning that the bill “does not contain a seat size provision.”

Legroom on commercial aircraft has steadily shrunk through the years, to be sure, says a top industry analyst.

“Certainly, seat pitch in coach, at least standard coach seating, has shrunk the most,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. According to Harteveldt, seat pitch has gone from 36 inches or more before airline deregulation in 1978 to about 30 or 31 inches in today’s largest U.S. carriers’ economy cabins.

On some ultra-low-cost carriers, you’ll find as little as 28 or 29 inches.

All the while, obesity rates in the U.S. have risen steadily.

And though comfort wasn’t the focus of the 2022 request for commentary on airline seats, the responses — including many about passenger health — certainly conveyed a high level of frustration among many travelers.

“I have experienced bruising and circulation issues from short and long economy flights,” one anonymous commenter wrote the FAA.

It’s worth noting that, over the years, airlines have rolled out a growing menu of more spacious (though pricier) seat options beyond first or business class, from extra legroom sections like JetBlue’s Even More Space or Delta Air Lines’ Comfort+, to entire premium economy cabins on many larger aircraft.

Besides, airlines would likely oppose any significant rules on seat size or pitch because roomier seats would mean there would be fewer seats for the carrier to sell.

“Airlines don’t want any government regulation that would specify a minimum amount of legroom because they view legroom as an economic element,” Harteveldt said. “If the FAA were to regulate seat pitch, and require something like 31 inches or more, [airlines] would say, ‘Ok, that means we will have to raise airfares.'”

Certainly, Harteveldt said, it’s virtually impossible to imagine the FAA ever issuing a sweeping rule affecting legroom without exhaustive evidence it’s critical to safety.

Speaking to Congress last week, Whitaker seemed to raise doubts about whether that’s the case.

“Typically, with evacuation, the problem tends to be piling up at the exits, rather than getting out of the seats,” the FAA chief told the subcommittee. “We’ve had trouble identifying issues around difficulty with seats.”

Whitaker did, however, pledge to consider all comments and perspectives — including that of Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee whose questioning sparked the entire exchange on seats during the Feb. 6 hearing — as the agency ponders the issue in the future.

“Seat size does have to do with getting out of the plane,” Cohen insisted in response. “If you work on the 90-second [evacuation standard], work on seat size. Realize safety and comfort can be the same.”

The issue of aviation safety and evacuations has been at the forefront of public attention of late, no doubt. Cohen himself noted he was troubled by the fact that it reportedly took 18 minutes for every passenger on a Japan Airlines Airbus A350 aircraft to evacuate after a fiery runway collision last month at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND), as did Duckworth, who authored the proposed legislation surrounding evacuation standards.

Still, that every passenger made it out safely was itself remarkable — just as it was when no passenger was seriously hurt in last month’s midair blowout of an emergency exit-size door plug on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft, an incident for which the National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report last week.

All told, aviation remains remarkably safe. Monday marked 15 years since the last commercial airliner crashed on U.S. soil.

More to the point: Safety seems to be the one (and perhaps only) focus when it comes to the FAA’s consideration of airline seats.

Far less clear? Whether that purview might bring future relief in the form of extra legroom.

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