Congress proposes minimum airline seat standards

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By | February 9th, 2016

A Tennessee congressman on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation has introduced a bill that establishes minimum dimensions for passenger seats on commercial aircraft operating in the United States. The proposed law comes on the eve of the contentious markup session for the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.

“Consumers are tired of being squeezed, both physically and fiscally, by airlines,” said Congressman Steve Cohen, a Democrat representing Tennessee’s Ninth Congressional District. “Shrinking seat sizes isn’t just a matter of comfort, but safety and health as well. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency, yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s smaller seats. Doctors have also warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who can’t move their legs during longer flights.”

Insiders say Cohen is likely to try to include the language of this bill in the house version of the FAA bill. There appears to be significant support for such language on the Senate side, making the move for minimum seat standards a likely slam-dunk for the final version of this bill.

Calls for minimum seat standards have been growing louder in the last two years. As airline profits have risen, the amount of personal space given to passengers in economy class has shrunk. Some have even called it a human rights issue.


Here’s the full text of the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act:

A bill to direct the Secretary of Transportation to issue regulations that establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats on aircraft operated by any air carrier in the provision of interstate air transportation or intrastate air transportation, and for other purposes.

This Act may be cited as the ‘‘Safe Egress in Air Travel Act of 2016’’ or ‘‘SEAT Act of 2016’’.

MINIMUM PASSENGER SEAT DIMENSIONS.

(a) IN GENERAL.—Not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall issue such regulations as are necessary to establish minimum dimensions (including width, length, and seat pitch) for passenger seats on aircraft operated by any air carrier in the provision of interstate air transportation or intrastate air transportation; and (2) for the safety and health of passengers.

(b) DEFINITIONS.—

(1) IN GENERAL.—The terms defined in section 40102 of title 49, United States Code, have, respectively, the definitions given such terms in that section.

(2) SEAT PITCH.—The term ‘‘seat pitch’’means the distance from any point on one seat to the same point on the seat in front of or behind it.

Cohen notes that the average distance between rows of seats has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has also shrunk, from 18 inches to about 16½.

Related story:   Senate tries to stop airline fees

What will happen to the SEAT Act? We’ll know more after tomorrow’s hearing on the FAA Bill. Odds are, the committee will be so preoccupied with privatizing air traffic control, this one will soar on through.

Stay tuned.

Should the government mandate minimum seat space for airlines?

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  • Steve Snyder

    If the U.S. Government treats this issue as a health issue, then yes, the government should step in, just as they did with seatbelts on cars in the 1970’s and airbags today. Profit is good but not at the expense of safety! Besides, how many flights have you taken where you needed those pesky air masks dropping down, so lets get rid of them too and save the airlines a boatload of money! ;-)

  • MarkKelling

    They have already gotten rid of life vests on many planes choosing to use the seat cushion option instead, so why not.

  • sirwired

    With the changes in seat design resulting in thinner frames and padding, that alone can account for a significant fraction of the change in average seat pitch vs. the 1970’s. Without taking the design of the seat itself into account, simple mandates for pitch and width are substantially less useful.

  • Kathleen Pierz

    Why don’t they measure the actual space one may occupy (distance between the cushion and the reclined seat back, from floor to top of chair)? Remember a Casket is 7 inches wider (caskets are 84x24x23 or 28 square feet), nearly a foot deeper than the average airline seat today – and that is for bodies that don’t need to move. If you do the math, the space on has in a typical econo class seat is less than half the size of a casket.

  • jmtabb

    Is that really correct that “they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on today’s smaller seats”?

    My husband works for the large US airplane manufacturer. His job as an engineer includes creating the models, running the tests and approving (or not) the results of the tests on behalf of the company and the FAA for his specialty (ECS – air flow). These things get done on every iteration of airplane configuration that is manufactured. Every time the airline changes a configuration (galley in the middle, lavs in the back, new lie flat seats in business, or any other configuration that changes what the interior looks like) they have to re-run the models and re-run the tests to make sure the air system still works the way it’s supposed to.

    I’d be shocked if the weren’t doing the same with every configuration change with the seats too.

  • MF

    Chris, this sounds big enough to merit some sort of petition or link to our congressional representatives!!!

  • Bill___A

    This is a good test to see if government works for the people or is unduly affected by special interest groups.

  • polexia_rogue

    this means the honeycomb seating will never become a reality, right?

  • KanExplore

    Trying to ban inexpensive tickets. Look for fares to rise significantly if this ever goes through. You can already get more legroom if you are willing to pay for economy plus. Watch for the lowest prices to rise to the level of what economy plus is now, or beyond that with the extinction of the LCCs which provide price competition.

  • Hanope

    Not necessarily. Economy plus can also refer to a wider seat, or an aisle seat, or a seat closer to the front of the plane, none of which grant extra leg room. All “Economy plus” really means is a seat that is more desireable than a middle seat or a seat in the back half of the airplane.

  • LonnieC

    Oh, joy! But it will never happen. Too much opposition from the industry, opponents of “big government”, and even some of the flying public (“the cost of flying will go up!”).

  • LonnieC

    I think this is the first time I have seen anyone address this specific issue. Thanks for the info. Is there any way you can find out from your husband if in fact the manufacturer does test every seating configuration as well? I’d be very interested in hearing.

  • KanExplore

    Not always, but generally they do offer enhanced legroom. See SeatGuru for data on the topic, comparing pitches and costs. The effect of this proposed legislation would be to force everybody to buy a product that may well be at the price point of today’s economy plus, whether they wish to or not.

  • Tom McShane

    What’s the difference between a price and a price point?

    If there are fewer seats on a plane, I would suppose that the price would be affected more by supply and demand. It’s hard to see how losing a handful of seats would automatically jump the price a huge amount.

    The legacy airlines would have to worry about losing business to the ultra low price bottom-feeder airlines and the low cost, fee-hungry airlines would have to maintain cost discipline so they wouldn’t lose customers to the big boys.

  • jmtabb

    This isn’t necessarily something that the airplane manufacturer does – the airlines pick the inside configuration and even the manufacturers of the interior items.

    Plenty of airplanes get delivered to the airlines empty inside and are flown to another location where a different company finishes the interiors. The manufacturer of the seating or the airline themselves would have to deal with certification of the seating configurations, including the safety tests such as emergency evacuation. Even the airplanes that get the interiors installed before delivery technically get that done by a 3rd party vendor (though it’s done at the factory)

    On a side note, there is a delivery center where airlines can review and choose the interiors if they are having them installed before the airplane is manufactured. It’s very cool – sitting in the different seats, checking out the lavs, galleys, in flight entertainment systems, crew rest, lighting options etc.

  • Michael__K

    The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires airlines to test their emergency evacuation plans, and they must be realistic scenarios, including baggage thrown throughout the cabin and infant dummies that need to be carried. “These tests have not been run in aircraft with seat pitches under 31 inches, even though aircraft are operating with seat pitches as low as 28 inches…

    http://fortune.com/2015/09/12/airline-seats-shrink/

    [A380 evacution testing] volunteers [were] drawn 50/50 from Airbus employees and local gymnasium members

    https://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/airbus-a380-evacuation-trial-full-report-everyone-off-in-205793/

  • LonnieC

    Very interesting. Thanks for the info. And from what I’m seeing elsewhere on this string, it looks like even the testing that is being done has some major flaws (“…50/50 manufacturer’s employees and local gym members”???) Wow!.

  • jmtabb

    Well, this has been an interesting rabbit hole today. Looks like lots of analysis gets done, occasional tests get done, and there is mixed opinion on the importance of real tests vs. computer modeling due to inaccuracies of the passenger samples, a decent chance of serious injury to a test passenger (there was even a death back in the early 70’s) and high cost for the tests.

    Tests are required at maximum configuration and maximum capacity and are required to be done in the dark (simulating night conditions), with at least 50% non industry participants, with a mixed demographic (though OSHA says no children under 18). All need to be “fresh” having not done an evacuation test in the last 6 months. I think I read somewhere that the tests have to be done with a percentage of the emergency evacuation doors blocked also.

    In sum – I don’t know if we’d be able to find records of specific tests done that mention the pitch of the seats in economy class. It sounds possible that more business + economy plus space and less cattle class economy = the same maximum capacity and no additional tests were done.

    Sounds like a great research project for someone. Are FAA certifying tests public information and subject to public disclosure laws??

  • MF

    Kan, I don’t mean to be rude but you sound like an industry troll. The airlines are making money hand over fist & still want more! Most of the laws passed by Congress favor industry over citizens, and very few crumbs for citizens are passed. Your comments flow from the industry narrative that doing anything for passengers will cost them $$$. Fear is not a good way to find fairness. In the end, our government (citizens) gives the airlines license to operate, with certain conditions, why not a ‘safe seat’???

  • Michael__K

    When was the last full-scale evacuation test in the U.S. done? I found lots of references online to the 2006 A380 test in Europe (minimum seat pitch 30″) but I could not find one reference to a full-scale test in the U.S. from the past 20+ years.

    I see that the FAA has moved away from requiring full-scale tests since at least 1993 (culminating in official new guidance in 2004) in favor of computer simulations in response to injuries to test participants.

    http://ntl.bts.gov/lib/000/500/577/930605.pdf

    http://www.seattletimes.com/business/boeing-aerospace/boeing-747-8-should-run-passenger-evacuation-tests-airbus-says/

    http://www.ntsb.gov/_layouts/ntsb.recsearch/Recommendation.aspx?Rec=A-00-072

  • 42NYC

    Coming in 2017……complaints about how airfare is now too expensive. Will the general public be excited for the increased legroom when next years trip to Florida costs 30% more than this year? What happens when delta has to charge more for a flight to Europe because they’re subject to these rules but ba/af/Klm can still cram you in like sardines.

    Economy plus and business class seats are more accessible than ever, yet most choose not to pay the additional cost. (I flew on Monday and the economy plus section was nearly empty despite the back being totally full.). Shouldn’t we allow passengers to make the choice rather than forcing them all to pay for more legroom??

  • 42NYC

    This bill only works for the people in that it’ll make flying more expensive for the middle class. Business travelers and the wealthy can absorb the cost. Grandma and grandpa on their annual trip to Tampa not so much.

  • just me

    For starters the Rule should be to immediatly impose the seat size from 1970 (i.e. 35″ pitch and 19″ width minimum) and than work on refining the standard for a year.
    It is health and safety issue no matter how one would want to rationalize away.
    Profit is not the sole purpose of anything ad should be prohibited if done at expense of health, safety and well-being of the traveler.
    If todays airlines cannot operate with normal sized seats – get out of business.

  • 42NYC

    Yet nobody actually pys for economy plus. Flew this week from New York to Chicago and economy plus fares with extra legroom and premium snacks and drinks were an extra $29. That section of the flight was nearly empty despite a generally full flight. People complain about shrinking seats yet can’t pony up $29 for more legroom? So now we’re going to force them to pay for more legroom. Seems silly.

    Remember when aa’s more room throughout coach was a total failure. Passengers buy based on price and we shouldn’t prevent them from doing that.

  • just me

    Hogwash – no matter what construction is – the pitch is the pitch. My legs need the pitch, getting in and out of 5-seater need the pitch – and it has nothing to do with the construction of the seat.

  • 42NYC

    The airline industry has lost money since 2001. Now that they’re finly profitable you want to punish them??

  • 42NYC

    What happens when you want to fly to France this summer and air France charges $200 less than delta because they can fit another 75 people on the plane. Are you going to fly delta because you’re a loyal American or will you look out for your wallet and deal with cramped seats and a cheaper ticket?

  • sirwired

    If the seat back were, say, a foot thicker, your back (and therefore your knees) would be forced 12″ closer to the seat in front of you. Likewise, you make the padding and frame thinner, you get more net room.

  • sirwired

    Well, given that you are laying down in a casket, which takes up a bit more square footage, and since either side of a casket has thick padding on it ( not to mention room between the body and the padding), I’m not quite sure how it’s a valid comparison.

  • KanExplore

    Sorry, but I like to have choices, including the choice to fly cheaply. I think some people live in a world where there are no unintended consequences. If you force a certain seat pitch, fewer people will be able to fly on any given aircraft. Doesn’t it seem obvious that if they can’t put as many people on board a flight they will charge more to those who do fly? Most of their costs are fixed or nearly so. In some cases, routes will become unprofitable and will be discontinued. In other cases, people who want to fly won’t be able to get a ticket since seats won’t be available. Other people will decide they can’t afford the new high airfares brought to you by Congress and will drive instead, adding to crowding and death tolls on the highways. And passengers who have to fly or can still afford it will pay higher fares. Call me an industry troll if you like, but I have no connection with any airline and no relative who works for one. I’m a frequent traveler who feels the public is deciding it wants to pay for cheap seats. People say they want more legroom, but given the option, they refuse to pay for it.

  • KanExplore

    The low price bottom feeder airlines would no longer be low price either. They would have to raise their prices like everyone else – probably at least to the level of what the “big boys” charge now – or would go out of business. How does supply and demand help? With less supply (fewer seats per plane), prices must go up.

    “Price point” is a marketing/business concept that relates sales to potential or hypothetical pricing, particularly in reference to maximizing profit. A “price” is an actual amount at which a product or service is offered. If I’m a grocer I sell a loaf of bread at $2.00. That’s it’s price. I sell, say, 200 a day. I might wonder how many loaves of bread I’d sell at various hypothetical price points, say $2.25.. People (including me in my business) ask themselves those questions every day. The best price point would be the one that maximizes profits. I agree the terminology is often used inexactly and interchangeably.

  • LonnieC

    And this is where some minimum standards can come into play. If we use the argument that the lowest cost is everything, the industry will start looking into shoving each of us into a cylinder and stacking us like logs. There has to be a balance point where basic comfort is required. By establishing minimum standards, all the airlines would be on a level playing field, and could instead compete on services, schedules, etc., and stop their steady downward slide. And choosing an airline really has little to do with being a loyal American….

  • Tom McShane

    Kan, I think most of us would agree that it is a good thing if airfares are widely affordable, since flying is so much safer than driving.

    My question is how much will coach fares go up if more comfortable seats are provided by regulation. How many more people will be put on the road?

    It seems to me that if your goal is seat affordability, you should be decrying airline consolidation, rather than championing sardine seating.

  • Kathleen Pierz

    That was intended to be somewhat toungue in cheek. It was just to remind people that the space is unacceptably small – and as you point out, potentially dangerous both in terms of health and safety. Animal carry-on cages are also proportionally more spacious, although I don’t think we should travel in cages either.

  • 42NYC

    and i’d say that if theres a market of customers who are willing to be stacked like logs in order to save on air travel, and it can be done safely (big if, i know) then airlines should be allowed to do that.

    the other issue i have is, we can force UA/AA/DL/B6, etc….to implement these changes but have no jurisdiction to make KLM, BA, Emirates, Qantas, etc… change their seats. So for international travel you’ll have domestic carriers needing to charge more for their seats (and many buy on price not on comfort) or take a hit to their profit in order to match the prices of foreign competitors.

    Or they’ll just start increasing other fees to make up for the lost revenue. Ready for a $50 checked bag or a $12 cocktail?

  • KanExplore

    Yes, I agree competition is key. I’d like to see foreign carriers able to operate within the U.S. to provide more. And I love the LCCs that hold prices down on competitive routes, whether I choose to fly them or not. It is hard to know how exactly many people would be put on the road (or simply have to stay home) – either because the flight has fewer seats available, or because prices are higher. It’s also hard to know how many markets would no longer be served, or require costly subsidies, if the RJs couldn’t function as they do. All of these things can and should be studied before simply mandating seat pitch.

  • LonnieC

    But, we’re not talking about luxury here. Simply certain VERY basic levels of accommodation, basic levels of comfort. If we can do it for animals on aircraft, we certainly should be able to do it for humans.

  • Tom McShane

    I’ve heard the proposals for allowing foreign airlines to fly within the U.S., but how would you envision that working? I can’t see Lufthansa carrying me from Louisville to KC, but I suppose they might carry someone from Indy to NYC or Dulles so they could fly them to Frankfurt.

  • Kairho

    First, profit is indeed the sole purpose of a commercial airline. Without profits, no investment. Without profits, no purpose in there being commercial airlines. The alternative is government owned and operated airlines and we’ve seen how well that has worked out.

    As to the dimensional changes, simple arithmetic shows that increasing pitch (using averages) from 31″ to 35″ translates to about 13% fewer seats. Increasing seat width from 16.5″ to 19″ means one seat in each row has to go, and in a 6-across aircraft that means 16% fewer seats. Together it’s a whopping 27% reduction in seats. Thus, all else being equal, fares would have to rise by roughly 35%. Even if there’s 25% error here, this proposal would most certainly put airlines out of business.

  • Bill

    So everyone is excited until the government proposes that the minimum seat standards are smaller than they are currently…

  • sirwired

    Well, it’s half-true. They have not conducted “full-capacity” tests (beyond the initial type certifications), after the aircraft manufacturers complained that the tests were both too expensive, and, since they ALWAYS result in some of the volunteers being injured, dangerously unnecessary.

    Instead, after a minor configuration change (i.e. adding another row in the 2nd compartment, they run appropriate tests just on the change, which usually does not require a full-capacity test.

  • John McDonald

    it’s already flawed, as soon as you mention seat pitch. As has been mentioned here many times by many people, 2 identical aircraft can have same seat pitch in every seat, but a massive difference in leg room, as seat back thickness varies so much. How do such dumb people become congressman ?
    Plus on B737’s & A320’s seats width hasn’t changed EVER & most of U.S. fleet are these aircraft.

  • Hanope

    Well, we all have to buy cars with seat belts, whether we want to or not. Airbags too. When certain items because a safety issue, then everyone has to pay for it, whether they want to or not. It there is a minimum seat pitch required for safety (both in preventing vein thrombosis and in allowing sufficient room for passengers to exit safely in an emergency), then we’re all going to have to pay for it.

  • MarkKelling

    Well, that didn’t last long. :-(

    From CNN: “Congressman loses battle in war on shrinking airline seats”

    The House Transportation Committee voted today (02/11/16) to not allow that wording into the bill.

    “The powerful Washington airline lobbying group Airlines for America
    opposes the idea. In a statement on Wednesday, the group said, ‘… the
    government should not regulate, but instead market forces, which reflect
    consumer decisions, and competition should determine what is offered.
    … And as with any commercial product or service, customers vote every
    day with their wallet.'”

    But when every airlines does it, what choice is there? How can you vote with your wallet when every option is practically identical?

  • Kairho
  • KanExplore

    Yes, and an objective study based on safety isn’t a bad thing. At the same time, the study should also investigate how much prices would increase as a result of any mandate, and how many people would consequently take to the highways instead, creating fairly predictable increases in road deaths. I have a particular destination (Dallas) to which I might drive or I might fly. Under generally available ticket pricing, it’s about a 50-50 proposition. If my air ticket price went up substantially, I’d drive more often.

    I have no idea what a thorough study would show, but if you only find a new policy would save, hypothetically, 100 lives a year for air passengers, without taking into account the, again hypothetically, 200 additional people killed on the highways, you have created a problem, not solved one.

    I am making up the numbers here, and have no idea what the real ones would be, but decisions don’t happen in a vacuum and can affect people’s behaviors in a way that negates their intent.