Lawmakers contemplate regulating airline seat size

You will be hard pressed to find positive stories about the comfort of economy class seating these days. As airlines reel in the profits during a rare perfect storm of low fuel prices, high demand and abundant ancillary revenue from fees, they are also adjusting their economy cabins to include more seats – often thinner, narrower and closer together. Some regulators say this is unfair, and quite possibly unsafe.

U.S. lawmakers are taking a look at some proposals as add-ons to a reauthorization bill to fund the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). One such proposal deals with the changing (shrinking) size of airline seats in economy class. One Senator from New York, Chuck Schumer, wants to standardize airline seats to avoid passengers having to sit "like sardines." In a political climate that espouses the virtues of free markets, however, regulating something as specific as seat size is a tough hill to climb. Just as it is with service, comfort is a difficult thing to regulate. Unless, of course, there is a safety issue involved, and that's the angle some proponents might take. But there's a problem with that tactic. The agency that oversees airline safety practices and aircraft certification doesn't see seat size as a safety issue – yet.

Decisions on seat sizes are largely the products of manufacturers looking to satisfy airline customers and carriers looking to maximize profits. While governments do not regulate airline seat sizes, airlines and manufacturers around the world are required to comply with a multitude of safety parameters before aircraft are certified for commercial passenger service. For example, an aircraft manufacturer must prove that a plane can be evacuated within 90 seconds with limited visibility and various obstructions before it is certified for service. That begs the question: Is there a safety issue when more seats are added to an economy class cabin?

IAPA reached out to the FAA which pointed to a statement made in response to a similar issue over seat size and regulations. "We require full-scale evacuation demonstrations and analysis that set the limit for the maximum number of passengers for any given airplane model. These demonstrations occur prior to FAA certification of the airplane design. These demonstrations have interior configurations that are more critical (less seat pitch and higher number of passengers) than most configurations operated by the airlines. No airline configuration can exceed the number of passengers substantiated for evacuation," the agency stated in response to a request for a rule-making on the issue of seat size and safety. In order to certify aircraft, the agency contends that: "Each type and model of airplane with a seating capacity of more than 44 passengers to be used in its passenger-carrying operations the evacuation of the full capacity, including crew members, in 90 seconds or less." The operative term is "full capacity" and as long as that maximum is not exceeded, regardless of the configuration of an aircraft cabin, airlines can continue to squeeze in as many passengers as they see fit. Yes, that pun was intentional.

Airlines for America (A4A), the airline industry lobbying arm in the U.S., objects to any regulations involving airline seat sizes. While safety standards are welcomed by A4A, the association bristles at other government intervention. In a statement to the Associated Press, a spokesperson said: "We believe the government should not regulate, but instead market forces, which reflect consumer decisions and competition should determine what is offered." She continued: "As with any commercial product or service, customers vote every day with their wallet."