Airfares have gone sky-high in recent months and airlines have been shrinking the size of their seats for years. Now the Federal Aviation Administration is asking for public feedback on the size and safety of airline seats.
Four years ago, Congress ordered the FAA to set new standards to ensure passengers can evacuate any airliner in 90 seconds or less. To study the safe size of airline seats, the FAA used a simulated cabin. In 2019 they showed it can be filled with smoke and plunged into darkness. But that’s not how the agency conducted the test.
The volunteer passengers who participated in simulated evacuations had varying seat sizes, but did not have to deal with real-life obstacles like bags, smoke comfort animals or the dark. And they were in groups of 60. That’s fewer people than are on many regional jets.
The FAA found “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.”
“This was not representative of the flying public,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. He authored the legislation requiring the seat size study. “The American public is becoming more and more obese and the seats are getting smaller and smaller.”
Airline seat width is down as much as four inches over the last 30 years to as little as 16 inches wide. And 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 Flyers Rights estimates only about 25% of passengers actually fit in those seats. And more than half of flyers in a recent survey were dissatisfied with the legroom in economy.
The FAA says it’s focused on identifying the minimum seat spacing necessary to safely evacuate an airliner in 90 seconds. Its review of 10 years of incidents found the overall level of evacuation safety was “very high.”
Human behavior, of course, is a critical factor if a plane must be evacuated in 90 seconds or less. When American Airlines Flight 383 had an engine fire on takeoff in 2016, it took nearly 2 1/2 minutes to get everyone off. Part of the reason? Passengers grabbed their luggage.
FAA research has found that seats closer than 28 inches apart could present a real challenge in getting out of a plane in a hurry. As they draft new regulations setting this minimum seat size, they have a public period open for 90 days.
But the agency only wants to hear about safety — they are not interested in comments about comfort.