On April 7, 2016, the U.S. Senate rejected a proposal to require the FAA to create minimum seat size and legroom requirements for airlines. As a result, airlines are free to continue shrinking seat size and legroom for air passengers and let “free market” forces determine the seating options for air passengers.
Shrinking Airline Seats
In order to increase the capacity of air passengers on each flight, airlines have shrunk economy class airline seats. In recent years, average economy class seats have shrunk from a width of 18 inches to 16.5 inches. Seat pitch, which is the space between a point on a seat to the same point on the seat in front of it, has shrunk from 35 inches to about 31 inches. Air passengers wanting more room have been required to pay additional fees for “premium” seats.
Nature of the Proposal
Senator Chuck Schumer sponsored an amendment that would have blocked airlines from further reducing the “size, width, padding, and pitch” of seats, passengers’ legroom, and the width of aisles. In addition, the amendment would have also required the FAA to set standards for the minimum amount of space that airlines must provide air passengers. Such space minimums would consider the “safety, health, and comfort” of air passengers.
The proposal also would have led to more transparent communications by airlines of the size of their seats. Specifically, airline websites would have had to communicate the size of an airlines’ seats, which would enable consumers to consider such information when buying airline tickets.
Airlines have lobbied heavily against any mandates related to minimum seat size or seat pitch. Instead, airlines have argued that competition, not regulation, should determine the seat options (including sizes) available for air passengers.
The proposal failed by a vote of 42 for and 54 against, which reflected votes in favor by all but three Democrats and votes against by all but one Republican. Opponents of the proposal were largely based upon a rationale that seat size regulations would increase travel costs and limit travel options.
People are getting bigger, but airline seats are getting smaller. Proponents of increased regulation related to mandated minimum seat sizes believe that consumers are entitled to certain minimum standards related to comfort and safety. However, opponents argue that the disadvantages of increased regulation – fewer consumer options and potentially higher travel costs – outweigh the advantages. For U.S. consumers, based upon the recent vote in the Senate, no minimum seat sizes should be expected at any time soon. As a result, when searching for flights, consumers need to be aware of the differences in seat sizes when choosing among flights and cabins.