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Dissecting Spirit Airlines’ Argument over Seat Pitch

Dissecting Spirit Airlines’ Argument over Seat Pitch
Joe Cortez

Since the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to consider a minimum seat pitch standard at the end of July, much has been made of the constantly shrinking seat. Those on all sides of the situation have offered opinions on how to solve the issue, from aviation industry pundits to executives running those carriers.

One such piece came from Ben Baldzana, chief executive of Spirit Airlines. In his editorial published by USA Today, he unequivocally states that the three-judge panel made the wrong decision in forcing the minimum seat pitch discussion. Rather, the airline leader argues that decisions on seat pitch should be made by the industry in concert with the FAA.

“For every aircraft it certifies, the FAA determines the maximum number of seats safely allowed,” Baldzana wrote. “Airlines must demonstrate that they can safely evacuate customers under whatever seat configuration they choose.”

Are his arguments grounded by facts? We investigated three key arguments from his editorial – and here’s how they stack up to the truth today.

“It is true that airlines have added more seats to their airplanes. This has resulted in lower fares with no compromise to safety.”

In 1992, Spirit took their current name after investing in jet-engine aircraft. Since then, there have been over 50 commercial aviation accidents in the United States, from the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 incident, to the “Miracle on the Hudson” in U.S. Airways Flight 1549. However, those incidents have been across a variety of aircraft, each with different configurations and seat pitch.

In an example of Baldzana’s point on safety: US1549 was flown on an Airbus A320, with an economy seat pitch of 31 inches. All passengers were able to evacuate onto the wings and into life rafts safely and with no loss of life. Compared against OZ214, in which three people died, it may appear that the additional 3.5 inches of seat pitch aboard the Boeing 777-200ER may not have mattered.

However, there is limited data to conclusively assert that seat pitch and safety are not mutually connected. In their 25 years of operations, Spirit Airlines – with an average seat pitch of 28 inches – has never experienced a fatal accident. Therefore, we don’t actually know if seat pitch could hinder flyers in an emergency.

“Regulating seat pitch, or even mandating that airlines disclose it in advance, would actually take away a marketing benefit even from airlines that invest in and advertise more legroom. (And many of them do!)”

Baldzana’s argument may be targeted towards premium flyers who are willing to spend more to receive a seat with more legroom while sitting in a premium economy product. At the economy and basic economy level, there is not much difference in the room between seats.

According to a study by Skytrax, economy class seat pitch across international carriers ranges between 30 and 33 inches all around the world. Those who dip below 30 inches include the world’s low coast carriers: AirAsia, EasyJet, Spirit and Thomas Cook Airlines.

Furthermore, the argument cannot be applied to Spirit’s “premium” products, the “Big Front Seat.” Compared to other carriers, premium economy seat pitch range from 38 to 46 inches – all larger than Spirit’s product.

“Efforts to reduce the seat count below the level determined by the FAA would simply raise fares for all, as the airlines would need to cover their costs with fewer total passengers per flight.”

When Spirit began flying as a low-cost carrier in 1992, there was plenty of competition at the airport. Despite the number of airlines, flying was expensive: In 1995, the U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reported that the average roundtrip airfare was $467 when adjusted to today’s dollars. Over the last 22 years, the cost of flying has decreased by over $100 per trip, with the average roundtrip cost in 2016 costing only $354.

Although low-cost carriers have helped to drive down the cost of flying, they only do so at the airports where they operate. Airline consolidation has left many flyers with limited choices, resulting in higher fares compared to other markets.

While Baldzana may have one compelling argument for reducing seat pitch, airlines still have an obligation to customers safety, followed by comfort. The Spirit executive – not the courts – got it wrong: there’s not enough information to support continually reducing seat pitch as the industry would suggest. The judges have made the right decision in standing on the side of flyers everywhere.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

View Comments (9)


  1. overdahill

    August 24, 2017 at 4:32 am

    Reclined seats coupled with the reduced space is a Problem.
    Arrogance on seat reclining could produce a disaster. With such reduced
    distances between seats, recliners can make it virtually impossible to exit
    a seat quickly as in my testing, I had to contort my body significantly to clear.
    Maybe I have a crazy body shape.

    Reduce reclining capacity please.

  2. theojt

    August 24, 2017 at 5:28 am

    So, while flying is one of the safest modes of travel, the only consideration for seat pitch is that you can safely evacuate in that very, very rare circumstance. Otherwise, you can travel hundreds of thousands of miles in complete and total discomfort. If left to the industry as opined by Mr. Baldzana, we will one day be standing or hanging vertically for the duration of the flight.

  3. EuropeanPete

    August 24, 2017 at 6:58 am

    It’s worthwhile noting that the sub-30 inch seat pitch club doesn’t just include low fares carriers, but also British Airways who are going to be offering 29 inch pitch even in their Business Cabin on short haul routes. I’d also question the statement that low fares airlines only reduce fares in the airports they operate. LCCs bring down overall flight prices, serving the same routes from different airports and providing alternative holiday destinations entirely.

  4. lumberteria

    August 24, 2017 at 7:40 am

    “it may appear that the additional 3.5 inches of seat pitch aboard the Boeing 777-200ER may not have mattered.”

    Hmmm… I don’t really see how you can compare one crash with another crash and use the loss of life statistic to come to a conclusion regarding seat pitch. There are so many other factors involved. Pilot skill would be at the top of the list. Sully saved a lot of lives that day.

    Also, basic physics will support the fact that that a human being will be able to exit a row of seats faster if there is more room between that row of seats and the next row of seats.

  5. TMOliver

    August 24, 2017 at 8:01 am

    At 6’2″ & a svelte 220, I remain confident of my ability to escape the cigar tube in most “survivable” accidents. On the other hand, so constricted, constrained, stiff, and lamed do I become in the “reduced” seat pitch on many airlines, what was for a post-retirement decade annual vacations to Europe and modest US pleasure travel has changed into travel by auto. Now my bride, after a recent ghastly experience with UA (Italianate bureaucracy combined with employee attitudes comparable to that of gulag guards) has joined me in giving up air travel. In October, we’ll drive halfway across the US, 2.5 days “on the road” with associated travel costs, to a silly wedding, just to avoid the tender mercies of air travel.

  6. GrayAnderson

    August 24, 2017 at 9:01 am

    (1) The three deaths in OZ214 had nothing to do with evacuation times. Two of the three pax who were killed were thrown from the aircraft because they weren’t wearing their seatbelts. The third was struck by a ground tender after being covered in firefighting foam.

    (2) BA’s problem with their “Business Class” product is that it is simply Economy (sorry, Euro Traveler, how could I forget) with no middle seat. Granted the OBS is better than in Y, but they basically modify single-cabin seating to imitate a two-class cabin.

  7. ksandness

    August 24, 2017 at 10:48 am

    I simply refuse to fly any airline that has less than 32″ seat pitch, since I am tall and have bad knees. If I sit too long in a tight seat pitch, I end up in agony.

    I routinely pay more to fly an airline that has a decent seat pitch, but if matters get any worse, I may take to driving for all my domestic travel.

  8. overdahill

    August 24, 2017 at 11:24 am

    Another response:

    The only survivor from May 25th in Chicago who could see the poor state of maintenance ,

    Am I insane or no one gets it. Preventative maintenance and engineering keeps us out of harms
    way. There is a picture post on msn today showing how it could be almost impossible for a taller
    or person of weight to extricate from such a row with a seat reclined..

    That picture says it. Someone in a hurry may forget to return their seat, or just not care.

    How many hills here multiairline million miler.

    Reminds me of the great wisdom of post Cuba hijackings on Eastern Airlines with, “We don’t really need more security on the Pilot’s door.”


  9. John Aldeborgh

    August 24, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    This discussion hasn’t touched on passenger size or age. I’m 60 years old, 5’8″ and 165lbs and getting into and out of a 28″ or 30″ pitch seat isn’t a problem but if I were 6’4 and 300lbs it would be a very different story. To me the question is, should airlines be required to place oversized passengers into premium seats, after all the cost of flying cargo is baed on size and weight. This would be both safer and more comfortable.

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