Are airplane seats too tight to be safe?

Airline fees grow, seats shrink

Being wedged into an uncomfortable seat is a trade-off many passengers accept in return for cheaper air travel. But what happens in an emergency when they have to bolt out of that tight seat and evacuate the plane in the 90 seconds mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration?

That scenario has prompted Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee to propose the SEAT -- or Safe Egress in Air Travel -- Act, which would require the FAA to establish minimum airplane seat sizes and distances between rows to enable flyers to evacuate planes safely if the need arises. 

SEAT, which passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support in May, wasn't initiated with passenger comfort in mind, although it could make flying more enjoyable for the more than 2.5 million Americans who travel by air each day. And it's only a small step toward loosening the grip on the tight accommodations travelers endure aloft.

"The bill only instructs the FAA to review the standards for seat size and pitch as they relate to the safety and health of passengers, and determine a minimum seat size standard to protect the flying public," said Bartholomew Sullivan, communications director for Cohen.

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On most major airlines, seat width has shrunk from about 18.5 inches to 17 inches. Seat pitch -- the distance between your seat and the one in front of you -- has decreased from an average of 35 inches to 31 inches and, on some airlines, to 28 inches, according to the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), whose members attend to the sometimes cramped and surly passengers.

But while airplane seats shrink, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta has noted that an average woman's weight now equals 166 pounds, which was the average male weight in the 1960s. The average man now weighs almost 196 pounds. Men average a 40-inch waistline, while women's waists average 38 inches.

It should come as no surprise that the airline industry opposes Cohen's bill, which has yet to go before the Senate, saying the measure is unnecessary. "Safety is and will always be at the forefront of [our] decisions," said spokesperson Alison McAfee of Airlines for America, which represents the industry. "The FAA has affirmed that all U.S. carriers meet or exceed federal safety standards regarding seat size."

However, these standards date from the late 1980s when individuals were smaller in stature and fewer disabled people were flying, said AFA President Sara Nelson.

Simulation drills conducted at that time found that a fully loaded plane could be evacuated in 90 seconds, but those drills were done with young, healthy people aware of what they were supposed to accomplish. Cohen spokesman Sullivan warned that if you perform such drills today -- with a plane full of overweight people looking at flames and with laptops and carry-on luggage going airborne throughout the cabin -- panic would ensue, and the result would be quite different.

"Take American Airlines Flight 383, which experienced an uncontained engine failure and fire on October 28, 2016," said Sullivan. "There were 170 occupants and crew on board, and it took over two minutes and 21 seconds to evacuate the aircraft, which is 63 percent more time than is permissible under the longstanding federal regulation."

Sullivan said the SEAT Act has "plenty of momentum" behind it. He pointed to the U.S. District of Columbia Court of Appeals, which rejected the FAA's dismissal of a public petition to review seat sizes as they relate to passenger safety regarding evacuations. He added that the Department of Transportation's inspector general said in June that the agency would pursue an audit into the FAA's oversight of passenger safety. The IG's office didn't return a request for comment.

But in some ways, the flying public is to blame for both its own discomfort and lack of safety as seats become smaller, thinner and closer. "There's a nasty relationship between the airlines and their passengers, since seat prices -- adjusted for inflation -- are now 40 percent lower than they were in the 1980s," said the AFA's Nelson. So it's not surprising that the airlines make up the difference by attempting to fill all their planes and cram passengers into smaller seats.

"Travelers are benefiting from robust competition with access to record low fares," said McAfee of Airlines for America. "We believe market forces should ultimately determine whether the industry is meeting customers' expectations, rather than government regulation."

Clearly, customers are angry about being jammed into small seats, and "air rage" is often palpable, said Nelson, who admitted that regulation could be an empty threat unless a disaster actually occurs.

And until April of this year, when an engine exploded on a Southwest Airlines plane and killed a passenger, the U.S. airline industry had an record of no fatalities since 2009.