The FAA Wants To Do Something About Tiny Airline Seats, But Not For Your Comfort

Airlinetop1

If you’ve been on a plane anytime in recent history, you’ve probably noticed just how small airline seats have gotten. Chances are, you’ve even rubbed shoulders with your fellow passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration has announced that it’s looking for public comment on minimum airline seat dimensions. But the regulator isn’t looking to hear why you hate tiny seats. Instead, it wants to know if those tiny seats are safe or not.

Despite my love of aviation, I’ve only been flying for about six years. I still remember that 2016 flight like it was yesterday. I got to watch the sun rise at Chicago O’Hare International Airport as the busy airport operated like a small city. My first-ever flight aboard Frontier Airlines’ Fallon the Falcon Airbus A321 was a dream come true. I started flying frequently after that and one thing has been confusing me: I have stayed about the same size, yet, how well I fit into a seat can be a real crapshoot.

There’s an explanation for this: Airline seats have been getting smaller and there’s no real standard for sizing.

How We Got Here

In January 2020, the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners Office of the Commission Auditor published Review of Studies on Passenger Seat Size on Commercial Airplanes. The document is a review of a number of airline seat size studies. It also gives us a history on how we got here in the first place.

This all started in 1978, the document notes, when Congress decided to remove government controls on airline fares, routes and market entry. For a period of over 40 years before then, the government controlled the market in the airline industry. And with few ways to compete, airlines drew customers by flying the latest aircraft and by advertising lavish experiences.

Aaluxliner
1971 American Airlines Advertisement

After the Airline Deregulation Legislation Act of 1978, airlines were unleashed into a free-market. In the decades since, flying has become dramatically cheaper.

It’s also become a pain, and for some people that’s literal. With airlines deregulated, the document notes, they found more freedom in configuring aircraft cabins in a manner that maximizes profitability. And that means cramming as many seats into a plane as possible.

The document goes on to note that seat pitch–that’s the distance between seat backs–has gone down from 35 inches to 31 inches. And if you fly on a low-cost airline like Spirit, that number can be as low as 28 inches. As the UK’s The Telegraph reported, in 1985 United Airlines had a seat pitch as high as 36 inches in economy. That report goes on to note that Consumer Reports has been tracking seat size since 1985. In that year, none of America’s largest four airlines (American, Delta, United, and Southwest) had a pitch below 31 inches.

Seatpitch
FAA

Subtracting up to eight inches of space between each row has allowed airlines to fill their planes up with more seats, thus making a flight potentially more profitable. However, that comes at the cost of comfort. A lower seat pitch number means that passengers with longer legs might end up jamming their knees into the seat in front of them. If someone reclines in front of you that’s potentially even less space.

It gets worse.

As The Telegraph reports, our seats have gotten thinner. Back in 1985, none of America’s big four airlines offered a seat with fewer than 19 inches of width. But today? They get as narrow as 16 inches. And this isn’t just a thing with low-cost airlines. Today, United can slot you into a seat with 30 inches of pitch and a tiny 16-inch-wide plot for your butt. In terms of seat width, United is actually worse than Spirit, where the narrowest seat is 17.75 inches.

United
Mercedes Streeter

This comes on top of the average American getting bigger, from the Los Angeles Times:

But health studies have shown that since the late 1980s, the average American man over age 20 has gained about 15 pounds and his waist size has increased by more than 2 inches. The average American woman over age 20 has gained about 16 pounds and increased her waist size by more than 3 inches.

So while you get bigger, the seats that you plop down in are getting smaller. Some doctors believe this to be not just a comfort issue, but one of your health. As CBC News reported in 2016, one man was diagnosed with Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) after being on a 10-hour flight where his knees were against the seat in front of him.

A World Health Organization study found that the chances of blood clots rise when a person is seated and immobile on long journeys. This isn’t limited to airplane travel, and applies to trips by car, train, or bus. WHO found blood clot risk to be greater, but still low at 1-in-6000.

This is all to say that a lot of people struggle when flying. The issue of declining seat size has made headlines for years. For example, a number of the sources here are a few years old, but still talking about the same thing. Since 2007, there has been a consumer advocacy group, Flyers Rights, trying to convince airlines and regulators to bring back more comfortable seats.

And it’s not just consumers who think things could be better. Back in 2013, airliner manufacturers Airbus and Boeing had a debate over seat size. Airbus reportedly believed that there should be an industry standard of seats that are at least 18 inches wide. Boeing apparently argued that seat size should be up to the airlines.

That’s why a lot of people, myself included, were excited to hear that the Federal Aviation Administration might be doing something about this.

What The FAA Is Looking To Solve

Seats
Mercedes Streeter

On August 2, the FAA published Request for Comments in Minimum Seat Dimensions Necessary for Safety of Air Passengers (Emergency Evacuation) on its site. Right in the opening paragraph, the regulator says that it’s seeking public comment on “the minimum seat dimensions necessary for airline passenger safety.” The document was published to the Federal Register a day later, opening the public comment period. It’ll remain open until November 1.

This has generated a lot of promising headlines. Many of them suggest that the days of the tiny, uncomfortable seat could be numbered. The public is making their voices heard. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the FAA has received more than 5,000 comments. Most of these comments have been from travelers complaining about how uncomfortable seats are. That aforementioned advocacy group, Flyers Rights, even plans on filing a seat size proposal, citing how seats are uncomfortable.

There’s one caveat about the FAA’s request for public comment. It’s not looking to read about how brushing shoulders with your fellow passengers sucks. From the FAA’s request, emphasis mine:

The FAA emphasizes that comments that include technical data and information will be the most helpful. The FAA is not requesting comments regarding matters unrelated to the agency’s determination under section 577, such as how the dimensions of passenger seats might relate to passenger comfort or convenience.

What the FAA is actually looking for is the optimal seat size for a safe aircraft evacuation. The seats can still be uncomfortable so long as you can get out of the plane safe and fast enough. Section 577 in the above quote refers to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. In Section 577 of the Act, Congress directed the FAA to develop seat size standards to ensure a safe evacuation from an aircraft.

To see how today’s modern seats work during an emergency evacuation, the FAA conducted evacuation tests using 775 volunteers.

Seatsim
The simulated cabin interior – FAA

These tests were performed in Oklahoma and the FAA notes that the average volunteer was larger than the typical traveler. Volunteers varied in age, size, and weight, but the regulator admits that the tests relied heavily on able-bodied people aged 60 and younger. The goal is to get everyone out of a plane within 90 seconds. To help motivate that to happen, volunteers in some tests were offered extra compensation to be among the first out. The tests focused only on seat size, and didn’t consider or simulate other factors like smoke.

Evacuation tests involved seats with as low as a 28-inch pitch, or the smallest space that you’ll find between in America today:

Of the total 775 study participants, six (0.7%) were completely unable to sit in the experimental seat mock-up at the 28-inch (71.12 cm) seat pitch (i.e., the smallest experimental seat pitch).

The shortest person who couldn’t fit in the seat was five foot, four inches tall. And the tallest was six foot, three inches. All of the six people weighed less than 200 pounds. The FAA also tested a 26-inch seat pitch setup, and 56 of the 775 volunteers couldn’t fit in that.

Seatsides
A seat test rig from the FAA study – FAA

Driving home how this isn’t about comfort, the FAA’s study concludes like this:

Study results indicate that evacuations at a narrow seat pitch are safe for virtually all (99%) of the able-bodied population. However, the study results do not consider passenger comfort (or the lack thereof), which impacts a passenger’s sense of well-being during a flight.

[…]

The current report focused on the safety aspect of seat pitch and seat width concerning evacuation time, just as the FAA’s regulatory mandate focuses on the safety of the flying public. Ensuring passenger comfort is not within the FAA’s regulatory mandate. Passenger comfort is left to the airlines, and a result of the choices passengers make when making travel arrangements.

At this current time, the FAA believes a tiny seat to be safe, so long as you are an able-bodied individual. But this leaves blind spots. How do small seats impact children, service animals, the elderly, or disabled people? Because of these holes, in its request for public comment, the FAA is specifically looking for technical and informational comments about these groups of people. It sounds like comments about how uncomfortable a seat is will be ignored.

So, back to our premise. Are small seats about to disappear? At this time it’s unclear. The best thing a person or organization can do right now is provide data to the FAA about the optimal seat size for the people outside of the scope of its study. Once again, the request for public comment closes on November 1. After that, the FAA will review the data and eventually, we should hear news about minimum seat sizes.

 

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55 Responses

  1. So 6/775 (0.7%) couldn’t fit at 28inches, but their tallest was only 6’4″ and the smallest was only 5’4″. A significant portion of the population is outside that range. (I’m 6’6″ BTW.) So, that 0.7% number will be higher on any given plane. For instance, 54% of females are shorter than 5’4″, and 1% of males are taller than 6’4″.
    So the safety systems won’t fit 50% of females, and over 1% of males will be stuck. What happens to everyone behind the one guy that physically can’t extract himself from the Gordian knot he’s stuck in? They are all in trouble, so the current 28″ seats are a risk to much more than 1% of the population.

    1. And heck, so many Americans weigh more than the 191 pounds measured in the biggest of the six who didn’t fit. Granted, the study didn’t say why those six couldn’t fit. The study also didn’t take into account people with disabilities or of limited mobility. Getting everyone off in 90 seconds may be a bit difficult when a passenger isn’t able to get out of the cramped seat quickly.

      Hopefully, someone out there has done the testing or data collection that the FAA did not.

      1. I didn’t catch that.
        Their biggest person, was at most, 6’4″ and 191 lbs?
        That’s ridiculous. That gives a BMI at only the 15th percentile of the US. So, 85% of people in the US have a BMI higher than that ‘large’ person.

        footnote: BMI can be a crap way to evaluate individual health and fitness. I’m not doing that, it’s just a broad reference point.

      2. If you have mobility issues, let the airline know. They are supposed to ensure that you’re not seated where your mobility restrictions will impact evacuation times.

        Yes, that means you’ll likely be the last off in an emergency, but the crew should be able to help you more at that point.

        It’s a “for the greater good” risk assessment to ensure that as many people survive emergencies.

        Even if you have mobility issues and get stuck at the back of the line, you’re still less likely to die in a plane accident than staying at home.

        1. ‘Even if you have mobility issues and get stuck at the back of the line, you’re still less likely to die in a plane accident than staying at home.’

          It’s amazing how far aviation safety has come. Flying is a safer activity than many things people do every day.

  2. The 737 has been in service since the sixties and is what requires 16″ seat width since the fuselage is so narrow. The only way to get 19″ seat width on a 737 (or 707/727/757 since they all share the same fuselage width) is to fly a 2×3 config, which to my knowledge no airlines have ever done.

    Seat pitch is a useless metric to compare seats from today and years past since slim line seats have such thin seat backs. What would have been four inches of padding/structure in the 80s is now an inch of structure with no padding. Butt-to-knee is the more useful metric, but not available in most cases.

    1. According to the link, Southwest flies 3×3 on the 737-800 and 737-MAX8 with seat widths of 17-17.8 inches respectively. I can also comment, having flown on both planes back to back recently, that .8 of an inch is not noticeable compared to how hard, thin and flat the seats are.

        1. There are still aircraft flying that have the 3×2 seating. A220, MD-80/90. Also, on the A220(formerly the Bombardier C-Series) the center seat on the triple is .5″ wider than the other pax places.

  3. It could be worse, I have seen mockups of staggered seats with alternate rows raised to increase density. These look bad under normal conditions and death traps in emergencies. I think a ratio of seats to exits should be set and enforced as a means of limiting sardine can seating.

    1. Seats to exits ratio is regulated indirectly, via evacuation test results. That’s why the 737-900/737-9/737-10 have extra exits aft of the wings before the rear doors, unlike the other 737s. With the existing front/rear doors and overwing exists, those planes failed the evac tests and needed additional exits.

      Different size doors also complicate the ratio. The 767-200/300 only have front/rear doors and overwing exits like the 737, despite being a wide body plane. It’s larger doors let it meet the evac standards. It wasn’t until they stretched it to the 767-400 that additional doors were needed.

      1. There are also strict regulations on the “corridors” made by the seats at exits. It is why most seats in front of or behind do not recline or have in-arm trays. You will also see a lot of seats at the exit will have the outboard armrest cut off or molded into the sidewall to not block the exit as well.

  4. Another issue is the seat cushion length. Airlines have been shortening these to increase the perception of more legroom and leave clearance to get in the tighter space. The problem is you get less support on the back of your legs and that increases the risk of blood clotting and cramping. Not to mention that since airlines decided to go with leather(ish) seats to speed up cleaning, it gets harder to stay in your seat with such a small slippery contact patch.

  5. My opinion on this is that the FAA is giving the airlines the answer it wants. ie Tiny squished, dangerous seats are fine. If you are in the window seat and want to get out even in normal circumstances and the two people next to you are older or bigger, it takes forever. 20x worse in an emergency.

  6. I thought with the Dreamliner entering service, there would be better seat widths. Of course, with a quick check, I was mistaken. United has a 3-3-3 configuration with 17.3″ widths. The economy class in the Dreamliner should seriously be 3-2-3, since those planes fly longer routes.
    Since Boeing decided to continue on with the 737MAX, and the Airbus 32x being churned out, there won’t be any shift in seat widths for a long while. The aircraft manufacturers need to make their metal tubes wider by about 2″ per seat for the next-gen narrowbodies, and the extra foot or so in width would not be enough to cram an extra seat in.

  7. Some years ago, my wife and I were on a flight in “premium economy” where, when the person in the row ahead reclined their seat, my wife COULD NOT GET OUT OF HER SEAT due to the other seat’s back being practically in her lap. She couldn’t eat the meal provided, either, until we asked the person in front to raise their seat.

  8. I hate to stick up for airlines, but damnit here we are. All domestic carriers (not including all low cost airlines) offer some sort of “coach plus” to get more legroom in exchange for a few more of your hard earned dollars. I can guarantee that if demand was high enough they’d build entire “coach plus” planes. We did this to ourselves by demanding cheap flights; so, the airlines survive by nickel and diming us do death. Personally I don’t mind being uncomfortable on budget airlines for anything under 3 hours. Anything over that that and I’m willing to pay a bit more for comfort.

  9. “To help motivate that to happen, volunteers in some tests were offered extra compensation to be among the first out. The tests focused only on seat size, and didn’t consider or simulate other factors like smoke

    The participants were offered money as incentive. Not very realistic. A better, more realistic incentive is not burning to death. This incentive would also fix the lack of other factors like smoke, noxious fumes, heat, panic, screaming, crying, fighting, prayer and flames. Bonus points for explosions, obstructing clutter and debris, severe tilts and or rolling, bright flashing lights, etc.

    Hey it’s for science damnit!

  10. I have a free market style suggestion… Remember how restaurants started posting calorie counts on their menus a few years back? I’m not sure if they are mandated or volun-told, but that effectively made my free market informed decision on how to trade my money for my health more informed. It wasn’t necessary to fine restaurants for putting 4000 calories on a plate, but at least now we know what we’re paying for.

    What if airlines were required to show the seat pitch and width clearly next to the ticket price? Better yet, how about defining a standard coach sized seat, say 18″wide x 31″pitch, and the purchase sure just has to tell you if the seat you’re buying is less than that? You’re free to save money if you want, but it makes the sub-standard product clearly labeled. Energy ratings and fuel economy stickers are other similar systems. The free market can work for consumers with minimal requirements to ensure that our choices are truly well informed.

    1. I guess you’re not a flyer? If a flight is even half booked your decision may already be made by what’s left. Or after the better seats are sold the bad seats become more expensive because take it or leave it. Or buy a good seat but someone comes layer outside you and you loose the seat?
      Don’t know nothing but gotta post anyhow.

      1. Um… You seem to suggest that the plane would be full of different sized seats? That’s sort of the pay extra for the exit row model that we already have. And I agree, it’s barbaric to make passengers play games to see who suffers the most pain in the cabin.

        I meant that when you pick one airline over another you would know both the price and the size of the seat. That would be an incentive for airlines to fit out their planes with seats that fit their customers’ wants. I think a lot of us would pay 15% more for a couple extra inches, but when you compare prices it’s hard to know what you’re getting without a bunch of extra research. And clearly we don’t want to pay double, or planes would be all “business” class (a misnomer, even my aviation related business won’t allow me to book anything but coach when I fly for work).

        Also… Someone comes outside you? I only found one way to interpret that… And it is not appropriate to this discussion.

  11. what planes at United have 16″ width? The smallest should be 17.5″ the standard seat across all Boeing aircraft, 737,757,777 (10AB), 787

    The Airbuses can fit a 18″ seat, I personally don’t see the .5″ difference.

  12. This is the story about how everything has been done in the US since about 1900.

    a. no need to regulate anything
    b. regulations about everything
    c. oops, we’ve over-regulated, better dial it back some
    d. oops, we’ve under-regulated, time to dial them back up
    e. repeat

  13. Here’s what I don’t get. When the seat pitch/size was regulated, flying was a luxury, and an expensive one. When they deregulated it, it devolved into a flying subway system, but affordable for most people.
    If there was a market for more comfortable seats, airlines would have larger first class sections, because there was money in it. They pack people in because people will pay for it. It is the most money per flight.

    The FAA is going to regulate how many people you can fit on a plane, and then people are going to complain about how flying used to be cheaper.

    Obviously, there is a safety factor to how tightly you pack people, and that data should be published so people can be educated. For that matter, Delta should run ads accusing Spirit of endangering their passengers, but getting the government involved only makes things expensive and inefficient.

    If flying sucks that bad, go get your pilot’s license and buy a small plane.

    1. Do NOT get rid of the reclining seats. They are a vital safety feature and I’ll tell you why. Reclining seats serve to clearly identify those completely self-absorbed assholes who, in the unlikely event of an emergency, will at best be utterly useless and at worst will shove and climb over granny to reach the exit.

      Reclining seats are an automatic warning for fellow passengers: Keep your eye on this douche.

      1. So I’m a self absorbed douche because I recline my seat slightly solely because I’m 6’3″ and proportioned like an ogre with a long torso (my head and neck are always above the top of the seat) and sitting bolt upright for hours makes my lower back ache? Good to know.

          1. Way to minimize avoiding actual serious back pain into “being comfy.” When I last flew to Europe my back was aching for a solid 2 days after I arrived. And even though I am a 32 inseam, there have been plenty of times where my knees were close to the seat in front of me, so there was no way to slouch and provide relief to my back, so reclining the seat was my only option to avoid pain.

            But the answer is yes. As long as the seat has the option to recline, I’m gonna do it. I always look behind me at the size of the person and make a judgment on how far I can go. Thankfully I have been lucky to usually sit in front of smaller people. But let’s be honest, given the back of the seat is hinged at the bottom near where your knees are, me moving the top of the seat back 2″ reduces your knee room by like 1/4″.

            Air travel is simply not designed for people our size. I basically can’t sleep on a plane because my head and neck are above the top of the seat so I can’t can’t lean my head back, even with a neck pillow. It sucks but it is what it is.

        1. Reclining an airplane seat when you know the person behind you is cramped and has no space for their knees is possibly the most selfish act that society regularly tolerates.

          My usual go to is to suggest to my 5 and 3 year old sons that they have a kicking contest until the offender gets the point. Gotta fight fire with fire.

          1. I’ll agree on the condition that the person behind you is actually being cramped. I always look at who is behind me before I recline. If there’s another giant behind me I’ll do my best to avoid it.

            But if you’re an average sized person behind me and resort to having your kids start kicking the seat in front of you, you’re making a bad problem worse and are providing a shitty example for your kids. If you played that game I’d start “acccidentally” spilling drinks on you until you get pissed off and I’d do my best to get you kicked off the plane.

      2. Both sides of this conversation are interesting.. Remember it’s the airline that provides reclining seats, it’s not the person availing themselves of the supplied option who is to blame. If you’re struggling going gluten free are you also going to demand no one around you eat the supplied pretzels? Are you going to get mad because someone next to you is watching the inflight movie that you happen to hate? If only the recliner and the person behind them could engage in some kind of verbal exchange of ideas. But dammit, we as humans have not yet developed audible communication skills.. Oh, wait, now I remember, it’s the humans who talk to each other, it’s the douches that just get mad someone has to exist in their proximity..

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