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We the Mostly Fat, Older, or Aching: US Rep Wants Seats Fit for Everyone

We the Mostly Fat, Older, or Aching: US Rep Wants Seats Fit for Everyone
Jeff Edwards

During a sometimes tense exchange with lawmakers, acting FAA Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell announced that his agency will (finally) begin testing the safety of densely packed aircraft cabins later this year as required by the 2018 Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act. Under the new rules, the FAA is required to set minimum safety standards for the size and spacing of airline seats.

“Americans are getting bigger and seat size is important but it has to be looked at in the context of safety,” Elwell told lawmakers in his testimony. “We are going to get you an answer on seat pitch.”

Last week, in a congressional hearing, SEAT Act co-sponsor, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee took FAA Acting Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell to task for failing to implement the 2018 Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act, nearly a year after it was passed.

Now, faced with accusations of feet-dragging, Elwell told lawmakers on Thursday that the agency would begin evacuation testing involving 720 test subjects over a period of twelve days starting in November to determine if reduced seat size and reduced seat pitch adversely affect the amount of time required to evacuate a jetliner in the event of an emergency.

But, argued Congressman Cohen, that might not be enough. The statute further requires the agency to set minimum safety standards for seat size and pitch based on this testing. Cohen is adamant that those minimum safety standards have to account for the needs of everyone⁠, not just the fit and able-bodied. Not including participants that accurately represent the size and relative physical fitness of the flying public would make it functionally useless, Cohen contined. Citing his own “bad leg,” the congressman even volunteered to participate as a volunteer himself in an often heated exchange with the FAA official.

Until the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act was passed last year, there were virtually no regulations determining how tightly U.S. airlines were permitted to pack passengers into commercial aircraft cabins. Public outcry over increasingly smaller seats, crammed tighter and tighter together led lawmakers to require the FAA to set minimum safety standards for both seat size and seat pitch.

Language in the SEAT Act requires the FAA to “study the size of airline seats and the distance between seating rows in determining whether airplanes can be safely evacuated in the statutorily mandated 90 seconds.”

The legislation was attached to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 in response to growing concerns that close quarters and densely packed cabins of modern aircraft could make it impossible to evacuate a plane safely in the event of an emergency. The FAA had previously resisted numerous calls to create rules standardizing seat size and pitch.

“We don’t need to have another crisis like we had with the Boeing airplane,” Rep. Cohen said in public comments following the hearing.  “I am concerned that the FAA has not fully complied with the provisions of my SEAT Act almost a year after it was signed into law. It is past time for the FAA to prioritize safe evacuation of airplanes in emergencies. I look forward to seeing the SEAT Act’s safety provisions implemented as soon as possible.”

View Comments (30)

30 Comments

  1. musicman27pa

    October 1, 2019 at 9:26 am

    Looking for them to deplane in allocated time drill with a bunch of folks that just came off the buffet line down south. Be lucky to clear 3 rows of the plane in 3 minutes… If there is an emergency landing requiring rapid exit my God be in the prayers of those on the plane as the cattle heard US citizens only move at one speed. SLOW… Obesity and profit driven airlines with no oversight do not mix.

  2. rickg523

    October 1, 2019 at 10:06 am

    This feels like wearing sweat pants in public. We have given up.

  3. j2simpso

    October 1, 2019 at 11:37 am

    Given how long it takes for Americans to board a plane I’d be surprised if any changes had a meaningful impact on evacuation time aside from the removal of seats. Even then…

    In any event legislating minimum pitch and seat widths are going to hurt the most vulnerable in our population. Frequent flyers who out of choice or obligation must travel in economy. Increasing pitch for others means reducing pitch in my free E+ seats on United. Gone will be the days of 50+ inch pitch on the 777. And for what? To protect some kettles who by definition are inconvenienced perhaps once a year by this.

  4. Gig103

    October 1, 2019 at 2:21 pm

    Yes, j2, how dare 70% of the passengers on an aircraft want to avoid DVTs and be able to safely evacuate, when your complimentary E+ seat is at risk! What if airlines started charging without exception for E+? Then are you okay with everyone having 32-33″ pitch instead of your 34″ E+?

  5. jonsail

    October 1, 2019 at 3:42 pm

    There should be minimum seat pitch and width. There should also be a law, severely enforced and with announcements at the beginning of each flight that in an emergency evacuation passengers exiting with luggage will serve jail time. In some prior publicized evacuations, not necessarily in the US, we have seen passengers exiting with luggage. That slow things down a lot more than seat pitch.

  6. Moyerclan

    October 1, 2019 at 4:08 pm

    Long overdue!

  7. localady

    October 2, 2019 at 4:17 am

    I really hope that they run these tests having two “emotional support” mini ponies on the plane.

  8. AADFW

    October 2, 2019 at 4:22 am

    This is one of the VERY few cases where I’m passionately in favor of government intervention in the free market. As someone who is 6′ 5″, I should be able to purchase an airline ticket without fearing that I literally will not be able to fit into the seat. If having a humanely spaced, reasonably comfortable space to sit raises ticket prices by 10-20% so be it.

  9. peterk814

    October 2, 2019 at 4:29 am

    Beyond just safety but the seats in economy are terrible. I am of average height and weight. I fly 150+ segments a year. If I didn’t get free upgrades I’d had a rough time flying the amount I do. The times I am not upgraded or book a last min flight and get stuck in coach it’s amazing how anyone over 5’10 can even fit between the seats.

  10. flyboy_88

    October 2, 2019 at 4:38 am

    We need to know the average size of a traveler in order to set an appropriate minimum pitch size. In order to accomplish this, I propose a yearly weigh-in. You will need this to buy a ticket. With this data, an appropriate minimum pitch size can be set. To compensate the airline for less seats… because let’s face it.. there are many obese travelers! Second, you pay ticket prices by weight. Everyone is comfortable!

  11. JBS75

    October 2, 2019 at 5:09 am

    If it is to be a realistic trial, have at least a third of the pax attempt to take their handbaggage with them. Anything less reduces the test to a nonsensical farce.

  12. OZFLYER86

    October 2, 2019 at 5:13 am

    far out I wish politicians would get their facts straight before bleating this garbage.

    Seat width has not changed on most of the world fleet of narrowbodies. Boeing 737/757s & Airbus A318/19/20/21 have always been 6 across in economy. Only in some A330s & some B787s have some airlines mostly LCCs put an extra seat across & seat pitch is NOT a measure of legroom.

    2 airlines with same seat pitch can have vastly different legrooms. It’s all dependent on thickness & design of seat back. An airline can throw out old seats with thick seat backs & replace with slimline seats with thin seat backs & increase legroom without changing seat pitch !!!!

  13. misdirected baggage

    October 2, 2019 at 5:43 am

    Hopefully, the test will include a random selection of drunks, grandmothers and the usual numskulls who evacuate with their luggage and slow down the process. Selecting a group of otherwise fit people who know in advance what is being tested is a huge exercise in bias and misinformation.

  14. vickeryfolks

    October 2, 2019 at 6:06 am

    Airlines in the US should be ashamed of themselves! Fly international airlines and you will never want to fly US airlines again. The US ones have squeezed us so tight that if you move in any direction, you share body fluid, make someone else uncomfortable or have to contort your body to get comfortable only to repeat his throughout your trip. It is just disgusting! I dread flying anymore unless I can go business class that is like the old coach class but costs morte.

  15. jrpallante

    October 2, 2019 at 6:55 am

    Once again, Boeing has become everybody’s favorite whipping boy. Cohen’s reference to Boeing had absolutely nothing to do with the SEAT legislation or the topic of this article. Ceteris paribus, everybody would like greater pitch on airplanes, but the reality is that reduced density will price some people out of air travel. Nothing happens in a vacuum (well, ok, maybe space travel….). Will price controls be next on Cohen’s agenda, or maybe government subsidies for low income fliers?

  16. tracon

    October 2, 2019 at 7:05 am

    Aircraft are already certified to evacuate a full load in less than 90 seconds with half the exits blocked.
    Regardless of the changing seat sizes, a 737-800 is still certified for 189 passengers.

    If passengers were able to change their lifestyles when the smart phone was introduced, they should be able to change their lifestyle choices to adapt to the slimming airline seat.

  17. Superjeff

    October 2, 2019 at 7:21 am

    Vickeryfolks, your comment indicates you don’t fly much. Yes, legroom has become painful on U.S. domestic flights; it is not any better overseas. In Europe, all of the majors (i.e., British Airways, Lufthansa, AirFrance, KLM,, Iberia, SAS, etc.) have gone to 28 inch pitch, which is 2 inches tighter than in the U.S. I agree that there should be a minimum (maybe 32″) and I hate the new slim high-density seats (and the new Space Saver restrooms in Economy), but it isn’t any worse in the U.S. than elsewhere. And Business Class today is not what Coach used to be. I’ve been flying since the 1950’s, and what is today in the U.S. called Domestic First Class was always First Class (the standard isn’t as good as it used to be, but the seats are roughly the same). International Business Class didn’t even exist until Qantas and Pan Am put a section of seats in the front of Economy Class with the same seats but nicer service, which pretty quickly came to rival First Class, and which today has almost completely replaced First Class on international flights. If you want First Class or Business Class seats, pay for it.

  18. azmojo

    October 2, 2019 at 7:31 am

    The problem that I’m worried about is that the minimum becomes the standard. If they say 29″ is the minimum, all airlines will go to 29″.

  19. drussum

    October 2, 2019 at 8:18 am

    Airline Response: Economics dictate that passengers be charged according to the additional expense required by the new law. Altering seat pitch and/or accommodating passengers through seating that allows to exit in the specified time will result in new charges for some passengers.

  20. st3

    October 2, 2019 at 9:16 am

    Not really sure how anyone could be against this. There absolutely should be a minimum seat pitch (or legroom really). If all US carriers are subject to this then it is a level playing field for all involved.

  21. cscasi

    October 2, 2019 at 9:21 am

    flyboy_88 “We need to know the average size of a traveler in order to set an appropriate minimum pitch size. In order to accomplish this, I propose a yearly weigh-in.”
    Great; except I can take two people of the same weight and height and their body mass can be a whole lot different; especially if one if physically fit and one is not.
    Are you going to make a physically fit person buy the same seat size/pitch as one who may need more room because he/she is not physically toned? Hmm.
    I am also not certain the airlines will agree to change their seating unless it is mandated by the federal government.
    We never used to have these problems until the airlines started shrinking the seat with and pitch of their seats.
    It’s all about the profit (bottom line) and getting as much as they can from passengers. Passengers put up with it and continue to fly, so nothing gets done.

  22. NonnaGoes

    October 2, 2019 at 10:36 am

    J2, “the most vulnerable”? The entitlement is strong in this one. There are frequent flyers who are disabled. There are plenty of occasional flyers who are disabled, flying with small kids, etc.

    It’s not just the ability to deplane in an emergency. It’s also, says the woman wearing a boot on her right foot and leg, the simple ability to stand up with the overhead bins stuffed and the underseat also stuffed. I’m under5’5”, have smallish feet. And because I didn’t put my feet just so when I stood up, my door rolled and I tore the peroneal tendon.

    Speed of exiting is a start. But just a start.

  23. BC Shelby

    October 2, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    @ Superjeff: Coach on domestic flights here in the US has become so bad (OK maybe not as bad as Ryanair which considered going to “stand up” seating and pay loos) that I often refer to it as “steerage class” (particularly “basic coach” service which many airlines here are moving to). Crikey, I actually have more legroom and easier ingress/egress on a city transit bus where I live (that I pay 1.25$ to ride on instead of hundreds) than in airline coach (where the longest trip may be around 45 min, not 3 – 5 hours).

    As to dealing with coach when disabled.

    Not only being tall (with long legs), but also suffer from two forms of arthritis as well as circulatory issues, wedging my long legged stiff frame into a space you almost need to be a contortionist to get in and out of, and then sitting pretty much pinned in one position from takeoff to landing (often with the person in the row front of you effectively sitting in your lap when reclined) is not only excruciating but dangerous. I would sometimes need assistance to get up out of my seat and head down the aisle when deplaning as I’d be so stiff from being stuck in in one position for so long. Hence, I take the train for trips that can be done in a single day without needing overnight accommodations enroute. For longer domestic trips (like the Northwest to the Great Lakes or East Coast) I end up booking in and paying for First (which is more like what old domestic business class used to be). While more expensive, it still costs much less than a compartment on the train for three or four days (often half the price if not even less). On several trips I found that the price difference between First and Premium (the latter a significant markup form standard coach) was about equal to a night out at the cinema with dinner as in “Premium” you still are required to pay luggage fees which on many airlines have gone up. You also still have that middle seat to deal with so you get a little more legroom and maybe a free glass of wine or beer, but hip room remains the same as in the rear cabin as most domestic flights, even transcontinental ones in the US today are on narrow body aircraft (737, A320/.321, and occasionally a 757).

    @ cscasi: Spot on.

  24. MimiB22

    October 2, 2019 at 1:07 pm

    Bottom line, I’m an average sized woman, neither fat or skinny, 5’7″. and reasonably fit for a 76 year old. Liited seat pitch and leg room makes long flights excruciating for me and most of us. I am appalled that airlines can get away with the crimes against basic comfort that they can. So, they say they’ll have to charge more if seat space requirements are expanded? Well, if all airlines are subject to the same requirements, the playing field is identical for all. If rates must be raised, do it. It’s become so uncomfortable, I avoid flying, despite loving and being able to travel.

  25. paul1268

    October 2, 2019 at 8:53 pm

    Sorry folks but the WIDTH of the coach/ economy seat on typical Boeing aircraft has not changed in 50 years. The “modern” 737 has the same width as the 707 of 1965. All of us in the world are heavier and taller. But in 50 years prices are significantly less. So if you want extra legroom or wider seats pay 1965 prices (adjusted for inflation) and you will get it today.

  26. sfoeuroflyer

    October 3, 2019 at 8:47 am

    Why oh why is price not fully considered. You can’t have bigger seats with more room without charging more. It seems that people assume they can get more for free. Yippee! The free lunch. Big seat cheap price. Nope the world does not work this way. When airlines have tried to sell extra room for a slightly higher price, the market has responded by going elsewhere. Does anyone remember AA with its “More Room Throughout Coach” campaign. 34″ pitch compared to 31 or 32 elsewhere. AA had to abandon the approach when its higher prices sent business to the other airlines. It is appalling that people assume that they are entitled to more without paying for it. This Congressman is nuts and an economic idiot.

  27. POatParker

    October 3, 2019 at 1:08 pm

    CEO’s like Douglas Parker have crossed the line of human dignity! And people wonder why air passengers are so unruly these days! THANK YOU Rep. Steve Cohen! I would love to be part of the advisory board on this subject!

  28. PapaJack

    October 4, 2019 at 5:08 am

    Out of curiosity, is there a regulation for car and bus seat sizes here in the US, since that’s where this location of this argument it. I have heard passengers in other countries commenting that they )themselves) have to lose a few pounds because of the seat size, but never have I heard that come from an American accent. I am no gazelle myself, but I do try to maintain some level of human shape based on the design I originally came in.

  29. horseymike

    October 4, 2019 at 5:15 am

    the airlines have gotten away with treating passengers as sardines for way….. too long. time to treat people like people again. charge enough to make a profit on a fare, it will sort itself out.

  30. jmpaul

    October 4, 2019 at 12:59 pm

    Re paul1268: It’s right that Boeing narrow bodies have never changed width since being set in the skinny 1950’s. But Airbus has updated this standard in their A320 series; the cabin is more than a half foot wider for more shoulder room for everyone. And check out the A220, even more width per seat. Let’s hope Boeing gets with the program.

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