Airline seat pitch is getting tighter. Finding ways to limit how many passengers airlines are squeezed into airplanes is a major issue.
As airlines begin to roll out their “Basic Coach” or “Basic Economy” configurations, with fewer amenities and less legroom, passenger safety and health is coming into focus again.
Last year, Congress directed the FAA to do a study on whether or not the new configurations of aircraft seating, packing more and more passengers into planes, can be evacuated in 90 seconds with half of the doors blocked. America is now awaiting the results of the study. Actually, many passengers are only looking for evidence that a study has begun.
This is an example of need for continued consumer advocacy.
Every day, behind the scenes, consumer advocates are hard at work to make travel better. Travelers United has already learned that presenting complaints as simply one of customer comfort or passenger service gets nowhere. But, dealing with the ever-decreasing legroom as a health and safety issue may lead to change. Together with another airline passenger rights group, FlyersRights, Travelers United has been chipping away at the problems of inhumane seating.
At hearings held before the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection and before Congress, arguments were made based on health and safety. They are being compromised by having less seat pitch. The arguments about space are no longer focused on customer comfort or passenger service. Today, arguments focus on safety and health.
• Safety: Packing more seats into planes makes emergency evacuation more difficult and time-consuming, thus less safe.
• Health: Tighter seating means less movement for passengers, even while seated, thus increasing the incidence of deep-vein thrombosis.
Both issues have been studied by the FAA and DOT in the past. Both have been ignored by the FAA in its evacuation testing and airline certification processes. However, the airlines did flirt with an idea of health during long-distance flights. Remember the leg exercises and bending over in your seat to stretch your back? Those stopped when seats were squeezed so closely together that an average person can no longer bend over in their airplane seat.
FAA has refused to test safety and health on planes
When consumer groups asked the FAA to reconsider its rules on seat pitch (the distance from one seat to the same spot on the next seat), they have been rebuffed. The latest came after a filing for a reconsideration of the current evacuation testing in light of tighter seat pitch. The FAA’s response was that the considerations they used for the rule were proprietary and that passenger health is not in their mandate.
Not so, consumer groups argued. They won in a case settled before the US District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (USCA Case #16-1101 Document #1643380 Filed: 10/28/2016). However, the FAA has still not changed its regulations. And citizens are awaiting a Congressional mandate to test evacuations and seating.
Seat pitch and personal space is not considered in FAA testing
• The public must be able to review studies that result in new rules. The FAA cannot keep that information secret as airline seats get tighter with less legroom.
Only four specific independent variables were included in the study, according to materials released by the FAA: Exit hatch disposal location, configuration of the passageway from the center aisle to exit, different subject group sizes and group motivation level. Evidently, no consideration of seat pitch was included.
• The FAA is responsible for both the health and safety of the public.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines “safety” to mean “freedom from injury, harm, danger or loss…”
Google’s online dictionary defines “health” as “the state of being free from illness or injury.”
As airline seats get tighter, seats themselves become thinner and less comfortable. Plus, the width of seats is getting narrower as Americans get, shall we say, broader. Let’s face it, coach passengers are facing a squeeze that they have never experienced before in the history of aviation.
Pets, on the other hand, are protected by specific space, food and water requirements. With the differences between the front of the plane and the back of the plane getting more dramatic, passengers are beginning to think that some kind of human minimum space requirements should be mandated.
Prisoners sailing to Australia and Roman slaves had more legroom and seat pitch than today’s airline passengers.
In an article written about a decade ago, I noted that slaves and prisoners received more space than coach passengers today. Back in those days the UK was sending prisoners to Australia and the Romans were chaining slaves to their oars on their warships.
After a bit of research, I discovered that prisoners shipped from England to Australia 250 years ago were allotted a space of 18 inches per prisoner per seat.
Currently, according to sizewise.com, most coach airline seats are only 17-18 inches wide.
In other words, passengers today flying on an MD-80, 727, 737, 747-200, 747-200G, 747-400, 757, 767, MD-88, MD-90, CRJ-700, DC-9, DC-10, ERJ or Saab 340 SF3 are all flying with less seat space than a convict being transported to Australia more than two centuries ago.
According to historical records, galley slaves had a minimum of 36 inches of seat pitch.
Of course, no one would want to be chained to their wooden plank. But you get the idea. Even the ancient societies had minimum standards for human cargo and their workers. It helped the forced-labor work better and guaranteed that they could survive the trip. Today’s paying passengers should at least be able to expect the same.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018. He also served on the Consumer Advocacy Subcommittee of the Transportation Security Advisory Board.