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FAA flooded with complaints over shrinking airline seats: "Torture"

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When it comes to the ever-shrinking size of airline seats and leg room, the flying public has a lot to say. In the three months since the Federal Aviation Administration asked for public feedback on airline seat sizes, the agency was flooded with 26,000 submissions ahead of Tuesday's deadline to send a comment.

One telling detail: the word "torture" was used by more than 200 commenters to decry the lack of personal space on planes. 

The FAA, which currently has no rules for seat dimensions, had asked for public input about whether standards are needed to ensure safe evacuation in case of an emergency. In response, thousands of passengers complained not only of the physical stress of being squeezed into smaller spaces, but aired doubts about whether they could quickly leave their seats in an emergency. 

"The current seats are too small for Americans of average size, myself included," Emily Clarke told the agency. "I worry that this will significantly impact my ability to quickly evacuate the aircraft in case of emergency."

The FAA requires airlines to be able to evacuate passengers within 90 seconds. Only about 25% of passengers can fit in airline seats that accommodate 90% of passengers, according to one passenger advocacy group.

Many U.S. carriers have reduced seat widths to 17 inches from 18.5 inches, with seat pitch —a measure from one point in a seat to the same point in a seat in front or behind — had dropped to 31 inches from an average of 35. On some carriers, that distance is 28 inches. 

"Literally wedged into an aisle seat"

One parent described advising her children to fend for themselves should troubles arise and seated passengers are blocking their escape. 

"As the years have gone by and the seats have gotten smaller and smaller, I have definitely been in situations with my kids where I've told them that if there was an emergency they would have to feel OK leaping over rows of seats instead of exiting along an aisle because a passenger was literally wedged into an aisle seat blocking our egress," Tiffany Farrell of Bradenton, Florida, told the FAA.

Some commenters opted to use the forum to decry a system where only those who can afford pricier seats are able to travel comfortably. 

"Flying is a common mode of transport, it is nice to feel like a human being and not a sardine," wrote Meghan Sexton of Bellingham, Washington. "The decency of having a modicum of comfort should not be reserved for the wealthy," Sexton added. 

Shrinking seats, bigger Americans

Airlines have been shrinking seat sizes for decades, even as Americans have gotten bigger. 

Adults in the U.S. weigh more than in decades past, with more than 40% of the population obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Congress in 2018 directed the FAA to set size requirements for passenger seats that are necessary for passenger safety. The agency subsequently found seat size and spacing not to be a safety issue in simulated tests in 2019 and 2020. 

Consumer advocates and some lawmakers for years have argued the FAA should be taking into account other potential health risks that passengers face in sitting in small spaces for the duration of flights.  

But airline industry trade group Airlines for America had a different take, arguing that the relationship between safety and seat dimensions has been actively studied, finding "no basis" for new or updated regulations." 

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