Airline passengers have been crammed into seats that have shrunk to as little as 16 inches wide in the past 30 years. Now, the Federal Aviation Administration wants to identify the minimum seat spacing necessary to safely evacuate an airliner in 90 seconds — and is asking for public feedback on the size and safety of airline seats.
is down as much as four inches over the last 30 years. Seat pitch has shrunk from about 35 inches to 31 and in some cases as little as 28 inches — allowing airlines to add more seats they can then sell.
The group FlyersRights estimate only about 25% of passengers, one in four, actually fit in those seats.
More than half of the flyers (56%) in an Atmosphere Research June flyer survey were dissatisfied with the legroom in the economy section.
The FAA said its review of 10 years of incidents found the overall level of evacuation safety was "very high."
In 2019, to study the safe size of airline seats, the FAA used a simulated cabin that can be filled with smoke and plunged into darkness.
The volunteer passengers who participated in simulated evacuations had varying seat sizes but during the study did not have to deal with real-life obstacles like bags, smoke, comfort animals or the dark.
They were also in groups of 60 — fewer people than on many regional jets.
After the stimulation, the FAA found that "seat size and spacing did not adversely affect the success of emergency evacuations."
But because all participants were able-bodied adults under 60 then FAA Administrator Steve Dickson acknowledged the results are "useful" but "not necessarily definitive.
Tennessee Democrat Rep. Steve Cohen, who authored legislation requiring the seat-size study, said he is worried about how quickly people could get out of their seats if they needed to because of their shrinking size.
"The American public is becoming more and more obese and the seats are getting smaller and smaller," Cohen told CBS News' Kris Van Cleave.
Human behavior is a critical factor if a plane must be evacuated in 90 seconds or less. In 2016, when American Airlines flight 383 had an engine fire on takeoff, it took nearly two and a half minutes to get everyone off in part because passengers grabbed their luggage.
The FAA says it is not asking for comments on what dimensions flyers might find more comfortable — only ones dealing with safety.
Testing did show that having less than 28 inches between seats may have a negative effect on the ability to exit a plane in a hurry. The comment period is open for 90 days. Comments can be submitted online at regulations.gov
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