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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.