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Smaller airplane seats aren’t just miserable, they could be dangerous

A new bill requires the FAA to better regulate shrinking airline seats, but politicians are impatient at the agency’s apparent lack of progress.

Smaller airplane seats aren’t just miserable, they could be dangerous
[Source Image: Nerthuz/iStock]

Air travel is terrible. In part because the airlines have continually shrunk seat size over the past four decades in an attempt to maximize the total number of people who can fit on a plane and, in turn, the amount of tickets they can sell. The reason the airlines could do this, of course, was that there was no law to stop them.

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That changed in 2018, when both the House and Senate passed a bill that was signed into law by Donald Trump. In an increasingly partisan world, it appeared politicians across the spectrum could agree on something: that airplane seats couldn’t get any smaller. “It passed with a very, very strong, big, bipartisan vote,” recounted U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), at a recent press conference. “We had to get it effectively in by unanimous consent.”

[Image: courtesy of the author]

The law, called the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act, required the FAA to set a safe, minimum viable seat length, width, and pitch for all U.S. airlines. Or it was supposed to. Senator Whitehouse and fellow politicians are complaining that the FAA is dragging its feet in solidifying these standards. Working with fellow Senators Richard Blumenhall (D-Connecticut) and Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), Whitehouse wrote a letter to the FAA in late April pointing out that seven months had passed without action from the FAA on regulating seat size minimums.

This week, Whitehouse joined U.S. Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) to host a press conference where they voiced their concerns that the FAA has not acted to establish these standards, despite the rapidly approaching October deadline established by the SEAT Act in 2018. Given that it’s not October yet, the FAA still has time to make a decision on seat sizes. Yet the politicians made a convincing plea nonetheless, urging the FAA to run full safety studies, complete with computer simulations and human subjects, to test how seat size affects disembarkment from planes in the modern era to ensure safe evacuation during emergencies.

As the senators pointed out in their letter in April, the last studies on plane evacuation were performed in 1990 when seats were inches larger by every proportion. Meanwhile, obesity rates have grown. Planes are supposed to be evacuable in 90 seconds during emergencies according to the FAA, and seat standards are key to enabling fast egress. So far, the group of politicians hasn’t addressed the elephant in the room: That the FAA is reportedly notoriously influenced by the interests of airlines, when it should be making seat size decisions based upon objective science and safety for citizens rather than corporate interests.

When Fast Company reached out to the FAA for comment, they offered this statement:

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 requires the agency to issue regulations to establish minimum dimensions for airplane seat width, length, and pitch that are necessary for the safety of passengers. Later this year, the FAA plans to conduct evacuation testing to determine what, if any, regulatory changes are necessary to implement the requirement. The testing will take place at the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma.

The FAA did commit to some level of testing, but it did not address meeting the October deadline for determining a humane and safe seat size as a new standard. “For years the FAA has refused to regulate airline seats,” said Cicilline this week. “We’re all looking forward to the FAA making a decision.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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