Why the government thinks shrinking airline seats are just fine

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If I’ve seen Melinda Ashton’s complaint once, I’ve seen it a hundred times.

“I’m a 6′ woman with long legs,” she says. “Even with the seat in front of me in an upright position, my knees are wedged. When the passenger in front of me reclines, the femurs on the ends of my legs are crushed into my hip sockets, causing considerable pain that continues after the flight ends.”

Ashton’s grievance is just one of many that I receive almost every day. She says on a recent American Airlines flight, she tried to buy an “extra” legroom seat — you know, the kind we used to have in economy class — but none were available.

“The metal bar on the seat pocket in front of me left deep dents and visible bruises on both knees that lasted for weeks. The bar itself could have caused blood clots, not to mention the inability to change position at all,” she says.

For people like Ashton — indeed, for all passengers, no matter their size — a group of advocates recently made a common-sense recommendation to the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the safety of aircraft. Why not set a minimum seat size?

The petition for a rulemaking, made by the advocacy group FlyersRights.org, was considered by the FAA and summarily rejected.

Surprised? Neither am I. But you might be interested in why the feds decided to decline this petition.

Let’s start with the request. Here’s the full document. (It’s worth a read because it contains some details FAA refers to in its response.)

Because of limited regulations on seats, airlines have decreased seat pitch and seat width in order to fit more passengers on each plane. In some instances, galleys have been removed as well.

This decrease in seat size, coupled with the safety, health and comfort of passengers, is the reason for this rulemaking petition. FlyersRights.org petitions FAA to

1) Exercise its discretionary rulemaking authority under 49 U.S.C. § 106, to impose, within 180 days, reasonable regulations setting maintenance standards and limiting the extent of seat size changes in order to ensure consumer safety, health, and comfort.

2) Issue an order within the next 45 days placing a moratorium on any further reductions in seat size, width, pitch, padding, and aisle width until a final rule is issued.

3) Appoint an advisory committee or task force to assist and advise the FAA in proposing seat and passenger space rules and standards, with such committee having broad representation of the various interests involved and expertise needed, to include this petitioner and representatives from other airline passenger advocacy organizations, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Center for Disease Control, and including at least one physician, ergonomic engineer, senior citizen, disabled air traveler, overweight person, disabled person, and at least six American air travelers representing a cross section of air travelers by age, height, weight, and gender.

Weeks later, FlyersRights.org received an answer from Dorenda Baker, the director of its aircraft certification office.

Here’s its response:

We have determined the issues you raised do not meet the criteria to pursue rulemaking.

First, the issues you identify relate to passenger health and comfort, and do not raise an immediate safety or security concern.

The chief safety benefit you have proposed is an improvement in emergency evacuation. Your letter discusses perceived shortcomings with the FAA-required tests of airlines’ emergency evacuation plans; however, those are not the only evacuation tests required by the FAA.

We require full-scale evacuation demonstrations and analysis that set the limit for the maximum number of passengers for any given airplane model. These demonstrations occur prior to FAA certification of the airplane design. These demonstrations have interior configurations that are more critical (less seat pitch and higher number of passengers) than most configurations operated by the airlines. No airline configuration can exceed the number of passengers substantiated for evacuation.

You use the Boeing 777-300 as an example, implying the evacuation tests were not conducted with the maximum occupancy of 550 passengers. In 1998, The Boeing Company ran an emergency evacuation test of the 777-300 with 550 occupants, in dark conditions with half the exits randomly blocked and with debris in the aisles, and successfully met the 90-second evacuation limit. The existing standards for evacuation time have been demonstrated to be safe.

Your letter suggests that failed tests for evacuation capability can be repeated without determining the reason for a test failure. This is not the case. Failures must be identified and resolved before a test may be repeated. As this is part of the certification process requiring that applicants submit proprietary data, such reasons are not made public, but they are documented and resolved with the FAA.

Your letter also states that tests have not been run with seat pitch below 31 inches. This is also not the case. Full scale evacuation tests on widely used airplanes have been successfully conducted at 28- and 29-inch pitch, when substantiating the maximum occupancy. Seat pitch alone does not determine the amount of space available between seats. The seat design will play an important role. In general, modern, thinner seats at lower seat pitch provide more space than older seats did at higher pitch.

With respect to the potential for deep vein thrombosis, it is medically advisable to periodically move around on a long flight, irrespective of the seat pitch, to prevent the onset of thrombosis, which does occur on rare occasions. This is a health issue that applies to any long-duration seated activity where a person remains immobile, rather than an aviation safety issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of venous thromboembolism is the same for economy-class and business-class travel. The risk increases with increasing travel duration and with preexisting risk factors.

Each year the FAA prioritizes its rulemaking projects based on issues that are crucial to the safety of the aviation community and the traveling public to ensure we deliver the most value to the aviation system.

In addition to the guidelines in § 11.73, Executive Order 12866 requires all rules to assessed with regard to their costs and benefits. Mandating specific seat size and spacing would carry significant cost, unless all seats already met the standards. The safety benefits of such a mandate are not apparent.

And here’s the reply from FlyersRights.org:

Thank you for responding to our rule making petition FAA-2015-4011 (copy enclosed) re: seat standards within six months.

However, as we just received your letter (copy enclosed) last Wednesday, the docket stated that the petition was still pending decision and this decision was not posted on the docket, I would request that you withdraw your letter, provide more detail on your assertions that current seats do not pose a safety or health risk, and provide a formal revised decision that is properly posted on the docket as required.

Specifically, what studies or tests that you allude to but do not cite are you relying on for your conclusions that shrunken seats and leg room do not pose a safety or health risk?

I have been on the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee and the Occupant Safety (fka as the Emergency Evacuation Issue Group) since 1993. It is my understanding that the FAA has not conducted actual emergency evacuation tests for many years (instead relying on aircraft maker simulations), and has never conducted tests with test subjects who meet the profile of passengers as to weight, age, physical condition, etc. or with the current seat configuration.

As to DVT, there have been various studies which we cite that are supportive of our petition, we request that you formally cite the study(ies) you are relying on. As you should be aware, legislation is pending that would require the FAA to mandate minimum seat sizes. Even Airbus has called for minimum seat sizes for long haul flights.

Your letter decision also fails to address any of the 140 comments that have been filed and are overwhelming supportive begging the FAA to act. It also does not refute the fact that airlines are aggressively reducing passenger seat size, legroom for economy passengers. As this decision would give airlines a green light to accelerate passenger space reduction even further, I would expect that it could cause some airlines to reduce seat sizes further to the point that passengers over average size will be forced to pay more for seats that are the size of existing seats.

The DOT issues certificates of public convenience and necessity and the FAA for safety to airlines that offer air travel services to the general public. As such, the FAA and DOT cannot just focus on standards for safety and health. Otherwise airlines will be free to provide seats that are clearly inhumane and do not even meet the standards of transporting prisoners or animals. The consolidation of US airlines into four major carriers largely eliminating competition on domestic routes. This means that without minimum seat standards, airlines will be free to place passengers in steerage type conditions or offer inadequate seating for a the body size of a large proportion of the traveling public by engaging in unfair seat shrinkage practices.

Given that this issue has risen to the top of passenger concerns, the establishment of an advisory committee as proposed to study the issue and make recommendations to the FAA would appear to be the least that should be done.

Accordingly, we would request that your letter of February 1st, 2016 be withdrawn and that the FAA issue a formal decision that takes into account the above concerns and deficiencies.

Wow, what a great Washington drama we have here. Who needs presidential primaries when we have this?

Ashton will have to wait for civility to return to the skies. But in the meantime, you have a poll to take.

Who is right?

View Results

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • MarkKelling

    As soon as there is a major airline accident with loss of life that can be definitively blamed on the seats being crammed too tightly together, then we will get regulation. Too bad it will have to come to that.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I totally agree with Mark. If you’ve ever ridden the bus with a few differently abled people, a couple of large people and some senior citizens, you’ll know how impossible it is to exit quickly on a calm sunny day. I can’t imagine a plane with real people with a 30 inch seat pitch actually evacuating in 90 seconds. Maybe athletes, but not normal people.

  • CC Gorman

    Safe, rapid evacuation of airplanes with seats crammed together is my greatest concern. I would like to see more realistic evacuation tests, but elderly/disabled passengers would have a high risk of injury during realistic testing.

    I would love to have more spacious, comfortable seating in economy class, and I could afford to pay for it when the inevitable price increases occur

    The Flyers Rights people lose credibility when they harp on increased DVT risk when there is a decrease in seating space. Studies are clear that getting up and moving around periodically decreases the risk of developing DVT on long haul flights, but personal space while seated appears to have no impact. They need to stop arguing against the science and focus on evacuation safety and comfort.

  • Peter Varhol

    I am of two minds about this. If an airline is not well serving a significant number of people, then an airline who does will effectively win in the market.
    But that doesn’t seem to be what is happening. While complaints like this continue to come in, it doesn’t seem to affect buying behavior.
    The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people will still buy the absolute cheapest fare, irrespective of how they are treated by that airline. I honestly don’t see that changing, even as airfares are lower in real dollars than at any time in about the last 50 years.
    Yes, I think that is misguided. But I see no indication that it will change. We have trained people to choose the absolute lowest airfare, and the consequences be damned. They will complain voraciously, but they will buy. And while you are welcome to disagree, I cannot believe that this is the fault of an airline, or of the airline industry in general.

  • RightNow9435

    Talk about your officious and uncaring response from the FAA

  • Cat

    For many, its a cheap seat or they don’t fly. I don’t think people are “trained” to chose a low fare- they don’t have a choice.

  • KanExplore

    Lots of people want to have the option of a low fare and not have them regulated out of existence. Many need one in order to fly; some prefer to make their own choices in each given situation. In many instances there are other options at a somewhat higher price for those who are willing to pay more.

  • KanExplore

    DVT is a serious issue. If there is actual scientific evidence to support the idea that seat pitch is an issue, then remedies should certainly be explored. However, the science doesn’t seem to support that. Any connection is unknown. What is known is that if you drive fares up and make fewer seats available, a certain number of people will take to the highways instead. Saving a few people from DVD needs to be balanced with resultant deaths on the highways for which we do have good evidence.

  • Gerald Vineberg

    I agree with Mark but only if the family members of the FDA Panel are on board….a very sad reality. Safe & spacious travel to all.

  • Gerald Vineberg

    Sorry…FAA…G

  • LonnieC

    Generally excellent letter. However, the portion stating “…The consolidation of US airlines into four major carriers largely eliminating competition on domestic routes. This means that without minimum seat standards, airlines will be free to place passengers in steerage type conditions or offer inadequate seating for a the body size of a large proportion of the traveling public by engaging in unfair seat shrinkage practices….” contain two major errors. The first sentence is not a sentence. And the second sentence contains extra words that make no sense. If written material is to be sent to governmental bodies from well-known organizations, at the least those organizations’ submissions should be checked for proper grammar. Anything less results in weakening the points being made.

  • Nigel Appleby

    Perhaps when they run the evacuation tests the “passengers” should be the members of Congress. For many of them it would probably be the first time in many years they have sat in steerage, oops coach. That would make it interesting and more realistic.

  • LonnieC

    There is a problem with the argument that if the government requires the airlines to address safety concerns such as dvt and evacuation times, the increased cost will drive some people out of the market. Under such reasoning, all of the safety devices in automobiles, mandated by the government, should be eliminated. Certainly anti-lock brakes, rear view cameras, etc., have driven up the cost of cars, yet few argue that they should not be mandated because doing so will keep some people from being able to own a car. Still, the safety justification won the argument.

  • Tricia K

    I’d like to agree with you that they would change it if there were an accident, but look back at the crash in Sioux City, Iowa where the plane flipped and caught fire after landing (I can’t remember the cause–it might have been the loss of hydraulics–it was in the late 80’s). Several lap babies were ripped from their parents hold (they were instructed to place the baby on the floor and lean down to hold them. When the plane flipped, several babies were ripped from their parent’s arms and some even ended up in the luggage compartments. Several died, and even with the flight attendants speaking up and asking for car seats to be equites for all children, no matter their age, the FAA decided that asking parents to buy a seat for their baby would be cost prohibitive and that it would force them to drive, increasing the likelihood of them being killed. Even in extreme turbulence without actually crashing, a baby is safer in car seat buckled into the seat than they are in a parent’s arms. I don’t know if they ever revisited the issue since then, but they still allow babies under the age of two to be held by a parent.

  • James

    Didn’t happen after the airbus crash in San Francisco.

  • KanExplore

    That was based on solid science that was done and proved conclusively the validity of those automobile safety features. The solid science is missing here.

  • John McDonald

    it you really want nothing done, give it to a committee or task force.

    + BE VERY CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR.

    Did you say you wanted higher airfares ? Can’t have 1 without the other.

  • John McDonald

    where exactly are seats widths narrower on narrowbody aircraft, which make up most of worlds fleet ?

  • MarkKelling

    I remember the Boeing 777 Aisiana flight that crashed a year and a half ago. Only 3 people died and it wasn’t because they were trapped by the seats. Not really “major” loss of life to the FAA.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, that crash was because of the plane losing hydraulics and being nearly impossible to control. Lap children should never be allowed. And yes, I see lap children all the time that either are not under 2 or are some of the largest 2 year olds ever. The airlines for whatever reason don’t want to say anything against it.

  • BearFlagNative

    Just more of the same regarding our current federal government agencies. NONE of them care, because under this present administration, they don’t have to. All the rules are devised and created for them and them alone, and nothing applies to the customers of the companies who the rules are supposed to help.
    We will NEVER see any changes until Congress steps in and re-regulates the Airlines industry. Everything started to go to heck in a handbasket in the late 1970s-1980s when de-regulation was allowed.
    I would have to agree with the comments that asked for the WRITTEN test results and the dates/times these tests were conducted. I am going to say, that even with the aircrew members, namely the Flight Attendants asking passengers to remain calm, way too many people do not and can not, because it is not in the nature of the human animal to do that in an emergency. It comes under the “fight or flight” syndrome and THAT is ingrained in the hard wiring of all humans.
    So in my belief, and having flown on several different airlines recently, every single airplane that has been jammed or is close to be jammed to its fullest, is simply a “ticking time bomb” when it comes to emergency escape issues.
    In the field of Risk Management, which I served in for a number of years, there is a saying: “Anything that can happen, WILL happen”.
    Right now, it is just waiting to happen.
    I wish the FAA all the luck in the world when it does happen and they have to try and answer for their action/inaction in court, because that is where it will wind up.

  • Peter Varhol

    You may be right. Early in my life, the only people that flew were the elite. Today, 30 years later, prices are much lower, and well, quality is correspondingly lower. I don’t know the right answer here, but I don’t think that eliminating the low fares we have today in the interest of improving the travel experience is necessarily correct. I really don’t think we can have the travel experience of 30 years ago with the prices of today, and I wish people would acknowledge that.

  • Michael__K

    The UK already has minimum seat spacing standards. Europe even has minimum seat spacing standards for buses.

    I dare you to compare fares between London & Glasgow (345 air miles) with fares between NYC & Boston (188 air miles).