As the space between one airline seat and the seat behind it continues to get smaller and smaller, and as the space between the armrests gets smaller as well, passengers have been asking themselves, “How small can this space get?”
Being confined in airplanes has safety and health consequences. The Federal Aviation Administration has been working for decades testing emergency evacuation of airplanes that provides a bit of safety to surviving passengers should a plane crash. And, doctors have long studied the effects of immobility on personal health. These studies have focused on deep vein thrombosis, a condition that can be fatal.
This week, the Department of Transportation (DOT) Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection held a hearing to explore the health and safety implications of prolonged confinement aboard aircraft and the reduction in personal space that coach passengers have been experiencing for the past half decade.
Airline seats that once were spaced about 34 inches in front of and behind each other, on average, have been reduced to as little as 28 inches of “pitch” in some cases. At the same time, airline policies that charge for checked baggage have resulted in more and more carry-on luggage that adds to the reduction in space.
NOTE: The distance between seats on planes is called “pitch,” according to SeatGuru.com a website that tracks the distance between seats on aircraft by type,
Seat pitch is the distance from any point on one seat to the exact same point on the seat in front or behind it. While it is not the exact equivalent of “legroom,” it does give a very good approximation of how much seat room you should expect. Bottom line: the more seat pitch the better.
This shrinkage in personal space has an effect on the health of passengers and on the safety of passengers.
Cynthia Corbett, a principal investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, spoke about evacuation of aircraft.
According to Ms. Corbett, the only limiting factor on how many passengers can be squeezed into an aircraft is how quickly the passengers can be evacuated. If passengers can depart a full aircraft in 90 seconds, that aircraft passes the evacuation test.
This evacuation testing can be repeated. If the first test doesn’t succeed, more doors can be added to new models of the aircraft to allow it to hold more passengers. However, the take-away from Ms. Corbett’s testimony is that the FAA has no personal space requirements for humans being transported in airplanes.
Ironically, the International Air Transport Association has detailed charts and rules for the transport of dogs and other animals. These humane regulations require adequate space to stand, turn around and lay down, as well as food and water.
There are no such “humane” rules for humans.
Perhaps one of the results of the care given to animals and pets is the fact that dead last in the list of complaints revealed in the most recent Airline Quality Report is treatment of pets, with less than a handful of problems reported last year.
Julie Frederick, from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, noted that there are, on average, 25 medical incidents a day aboard flights. She also noted that seven percent of these emergencies result in diversions of flights. Flight attendants today are having trouble finding enough space on planes to take care of these medical incidents.
The question of health and deep vein thrombosis (DVT) was discussed by Nimia L. Reyes, MD, MPH, Medical Officer, Division of Blood Disorders, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her explanation of the causes of DVT focused on the need to “ambulate” or walk around to reduce the problems caused by long periods of confinement and immobility.
Ira Goldman, the inventor of the Knee Defender, provided charts and sketches of current and newer, slim-line airplane seats that still fail to take into account the invasion of space that the passengers behind reclining passengers experience. He urged the FAA to not accept any right to recline and suggested that in safety briefings, flight attendants warn passengers to look and ask prior to reclining seats.
Mr. Goldman also noted that the FAA rules about sitting with seat belts fastened also contributed to the lack of movement and provided airlines with an excuse for keeping passengers immobilized during long tarmac delays and on long flights. A change in FAA rules that encouraged passengers to move about the cabin should they feel their legs swelling would be a step in the right direction.
Finally, the panel discussed air rage. Everyone admitted that reported incidents of air rage have increased. There is no scientific proof that squeezing passengers closer together in planes causes air rage; however, the anecdotal evidence is strong.
Just as an atom bomb is created by squeezing atoms closer together until they begin striking each other — resulting in an explosion — putting passengers into closer and closer proximity also creates interpersonal explosions.
Examining the current airline practices of packing passengers on planes might be justified by financial and profit motives, but there are health and safety consequences. It is time for the FAA to take a close look at passenger well being. It is time for the FAA to craft some humane rules and regulations.
After all, don’t you deserve to be treated at least as well as your dog?
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.