It’s no secret that over the past 40 years or so, airlines have made plane seats more and more narrow, along with continually less space between rows. At the same time, Chris Q. Public has gotten larger, which makes squeezing into (and out of) these smaller seats that much more difficult and uncomfortable.
In 2018, Congress ordered the FAA to study the issue and set regulations on minimum seat sizes by 2019. The organization has been a little slow but is finally getting to business.
Earlier this year, they finally released the report on how long it took people to exit a plane in a mock emergency situation. They did all leave within the required 90 seconds, but to be honest, that’s probably to be expected, since they didn’t include any children, babies, senior citizens, disabled folks or people with pets in the study, even though chances are good that most, if not all of those demographics would be represented on a commercial plane on any given day.
The FAA is now getting public opinions on the topic.
The FAA invites comments on minimum seat dimensions necessary for passenger safety, especially during airplane evacuation, as the FAA examines whether new regulatory standards are necessary, in order to ensure such safety and comply with Section 577 of the Act. The FAA encourages commenters to review the CAMI report, and other materials in the docket, prior to commenting.
Comments should address whether, considering the existing regulatory requirements, one or more of the following seat dimensions have or demonstrably could adversely affect the safety of air passengers by delaying the group egress time of an emergency evacuation:
a. Seat width;
b. Seat pitch;
c. Seat length; and
d. Other seat dimensions.
Further, commenters are asked to provide information regarding the minimum seat dimensions necessary to ensure safety during airplane evacuation of a broad range of passengers, including those who were not included in the CAMI study including children, people over 60, and individuals with disabilities.
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.
Note their specification: they are asking not how the dimensions of passenger seats might relate to passenger comfort or convenience; only about safety when having to evacuate during an emergency.
The agency officially opened the portal for the public’s feedback on August 3rd. They have close to 10,000 replies so far, and of the ones I read, Chris Q. Public has touched on how “too small seats could be dangerous in an emergency,” the vast majority are ALL ABOUT comfort. Because of the replies appear to be like these:
- I travel frequently for both business and personal matters. I am 6 foot tall and on the heavy side. Which in looking around is not uncommon for many travelers. In most aircraft I find the distance between the armrests to be about 1-2 inches narrow and the leg room to be about 3-4 inches to short. This causes me to sit so that I am either hanging out in the aisle or in my neighbors space. Both of these situation I feel affect the safty of us all. I can’t be more detailed on the exact dimensions because they vary from airline carrier to airline carrier and I have not brought a measuring device along with me besides my legs and backside. – Carl C.
- Please consider making seats 24 inches. The current 19 inches is uncomfortable for larger people. Leg room should be doubled. I have watched tall people try to squeeze into this small amount of space and how uncomfortable they are. The seat length I think is fine. It’s the width that is terrible. – Carol P.
- Our tall family of 4 have inseams between 34 and 38 inches. We have found that as airlines reduce the pitch, our legs fall asleep quickly from being forced into unnatural positions. When given a chance to stand, it takes 1-2 minutes for the blood to flow to allow movement to take place. This is easily a safety issue should we need to evacuate quickly. (We used to be granted exit row seating simply because we are tall, but now airlines use this row as another money maker.) – Amy S.
- I believe that the size, width, and depth of airline passenger seats are not only uncomfortable, but can be a health threat. Please increase these sizes so that we are not uncomfortable, but also, safer. Many of us have orthopedic issues, cardiac, and respiratory issues, and are compromised by the unhealthy spacing and cramping of airline passenger seats. – Bonnie G.
- I object to the seats being able to lean so far back. If you are in the middle seat and the one in front of you leans all the way back, there is no way you can get out.- Shirley W.
- Airplane seat sizes are ridiculously small and uncomfortable. I consider myself “midsize” (F size 12) and you can barely move, move less cross your legs, and if you CAN even recline it is frowned upon. Typically there is at least one larger person in the row, and I’ve had people “spill into” my space just about every flight! Nevermind if it is a person traveling with an infant in their lap…the absolute WORST in these cramped conditions. You can’t get in or out of the row without EVERYONE vacating their seats and standing in the aisle. There is literally nothing safe about jamming people in like sardines, and I don’t understand why flying – and planes – turned to such crap from years ago, especially as they are making money hand over fist and had massive government bailouts! – Anonymous
- Seats are much too narrow and too close to the seat in front. There should be adequate leg room. One should be able to get up easily and safely, which cannot be done now even by a slender person. If you’re overweight, it becomes difficult, and if you’re obese, flying is almost next to impossible. Airlines need to recognize and accept that most women are not a size 2 but are size 14 or 16 or larger and offer a seat that is comfortable and safe for them. – I.G.
- It should certainly be obvious that the airlines have been doing all that they can to decrease seat size and pitch with little regard for the comfort or safety of their passengers. It is time for the FAA to stop letting the industry simply get away with this this practice and work towards finding a comfortable minimum seat width and distance between the seats. What we have now should be an embarrassment. – Chris F.
- As the airlines milk more profit, this push is often at the expense of customers. The size of the seats are just one of many service failures on the airline’s part. I dread flying now knowing I will be crammed into a seat so small as to be uncomfortable the entire trip. The airlines know this and charge a premium for seats that are wide enough or with enough legroom to accommodate basic human decency. They charge extra for the minimum when the minimum should be the standard. – M.H.
I am 6’7″ tall and weigh about 275 lbs. The modern airplane seat is untenable for me. I don’t fit in most regular seats without an aisle seat that I can diagonally spread my legs into an aisle. Most “Economy Plus” seats that airlines charge a $25-200 upcharge on offer 34-38″ of pitch and fit me like a normal seat should. I think that 35-36″ should be the minimum pitch as everyone should be able to fit into an airplane seat. Why should I have to pay extra just to get a seat that I can fit in and doesn’t give me physical discomfort? The FAA should absolutely set minimum seat dimensions to protect flyers and make flying a more comfortable and welcoming experience for all. – Daniel S.
All seats should be the same as business class, economy is torture for flights over 2 hours. – Damonn P.
- Seat width and under seat storage. Airlines have reduced the space between rows and the width of seats significantly. I am female, 5’8″ and 180 lbs. in good physical health and flexibility. I cannot lean forward to grab my underseat storage without having to twist my torso sideways and lean my head directly into the seat in front of me. Also with underseat storage, the width varies from aisle to middle and window with aisle often being the most narrow. American Airlines is particularly guilty of this. It is so narrow that my feet cannot slide next to my personal bag (16″ wide). I choose an aisle so I can stretch my legs knowing that the underseat may not permit me to extend my legs during the flight. With the space between rows becoming more narrow, passengers underseat stowage often sticks out and is a tripping hazard when trying to exit the row for bathroom, etc. Imagine during an emergency evacuation! The inability to turn within your row space and have to scoot sideways is challenging in the best of circumstances.
Also, the seat width is getting ridiculously narrow. If 3 people my size or larger are seated in the same row, the men are naturally broader and impose physically into my seat space. The inability to move within my physical alotted space results in muscle tightness and muscle fatigue that often induce severe headaches later. this goes beyond basic comfort when the aftermath of sitting on a 3-6 hours flight impacts your physical wellness beyond 24 hours later. In the past 3 years I have traveled on American Airlines, AirCanada, Hawaiian Airlines and Southwest. AirCanada & Hawaiian were the most consistent with underseat width be the same for all seats but all were lacking in space between the rows. – Mary B.
- As someone who is 6’5” tall Airplane seats do not take into account for someone who is as tall as I am. Even when purchasing delta plus seats they are extremely uncomfortable because the arms didn’t raise on those seats. Any assistance in providing options for people over 6’0” would be greatly appreciated. – Kalub H.
- Seat sizes must be increased to ensure our safety and comfort. I am a 5’8, 125 lb, 68 year old female and my knees hit the seat in front of me. I can’t stretch out my legs to improve circulation to avoid DVT. I suffer from sciatica and the people on either side of me are often taking up part of my seat so I can’t even move. I can barely get out and past someone to use the rest room, no less move quickly in an emergency. It’s time to stop the greedy airlines and put safety first! – Anonymous A.
- I have had the pleasure of being miserable in every airline seat I have been in for the last 10 years. But now I cannot even cross or uncross my legs. And please understand that I say this in a calm manner but when the passenger in front of me moves their seat back into my lap I SEE RED. Seats should be consistent with the human body, I am 5’6” tall and weigh 130lbs. Just think how miserable a 5’10” 200lbs person would be in an airline seat made for a child. Please make the airlines give us more room to cross our legs, sit without a stranger’s hair in our face and be able to go to the restroom without having to have practice Cirque De Soleil move for a week before we board a plane. Thank You – Lynette D.
Fortunately, there were some responses that were spot on:
- As a long time flyer with almost 3 million miles on Delta alone, I have been concerned for years about the impact of shrinking seat sizes and the space between rows of seats on emergency evacuation. I don’t believe the carefully staged evacuation tests with atypical participants is a good indicator of what is likely to happen in an actual airline emergency evacuation.I encourage the FAA to do a critical evaluation of this issue. – Roger S.
- It’s a known fact that Americans have been getting taller and heavier. The U.S. also has one of the highest ratios of obesity on the planet. Americans are simply too big these days to easily negotiate in the space provided between the seats and many ‘spill’ over into the neighboring seats once they do manage to get seated.
Here’s two quick items the government has hosted at the CDCl. They’re a little dated, so the average American is probably even heavier and wider now.
Easy to see graph: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5431a5.htm
Really short article: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/04news/americans.htm
Due to the populations increasing body size, seats realistically should have a width of at least 20″ and pitch of at least 36″ to facilitate freedom of movement during an emergency. The additional comfort is a bonus, but safety first. – John P.
- I’m 56 years old and able-bodied, but I’ve travelled with my mother who is in her early 90s. The amount of space between rows would make it impossible for her to quickly exit any plane seat in economy. I understand that it’s important for airlines to make a profit, but the crowding in economy is, frankly, pretty terrifying. (Especially with COVID hanging around.) In an emergency – with people in a panicked state – even young, healthy people would have a hard time exiting an aircraft. For older people or those with disabilities (or children), the chances of safely exiting an airplane are almost nil. It would not take a tremendous amount of research money to create a study to identify how long it would take to clear a plane when, say, 20% of the plane is elderly, have disabilities or have children. I also understand that it’s expensive to retrofit planes, but any new planes should take into account that we have a growing, not diminishing, population of people living (even working!) well into their 70s and 80s now. Let’s start planning for a safer, more comfortable future for everyone. Stop squeezing more passengers into planes. Thanks for listening. – Butch B.
- Commercial aircraft seat limitation are the basis – however, they are fundamentally wrong- as during Sanders 25 certification test – employees are being used
to escape the aircraft simulating an emergency. Use -off the street people for same test and you get entirely different results. This is why people die as the amount of people on an aircraft -are only demonstrated by company personnel. Thus – the basis needs to change.
2. UCLA study shows- people in various age groups gained roughly 4.5 pounds -during their adulthood from 1980 to 1990. The assumption is, that additional weight is added in subsequent years. Synonymous with weight gain is circumference of the waist . Consequently, a seat pitch of 30″ – 30 years ago- requires adjustment to between 31-31″ seat pitch today, whereas the width can probably stay of at least 19 inches.
But seat width and seat pitch is also equal to money – the most expensive seat is an empty seat – from that premise – if you ever managed costs of an airline -you will place maximum allowable seats into the aircraft . It is therefore not safety rather the money you can make that dictates pitch and width. – Mike F.
The portal will be open until November 1st. You can also snail mail comments to the FAA:
Docket Operations, M-30
U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)
1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Room W12-140
West Building Ground Floor
Washington, DC 20590-0001
Or have them delivered by hand or courier:
Docket Operations in Room W12-140 of the West Building Ground Floor at 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, except Federal holidays
You can even fax them: (202) 493-2251
Will this help encourage the FAA to require wider seats with more legroom/pitch? Who knows; we can only hope.
Feature Photo: Pexels
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