Is it time to take a stand against shrinking airline seats?

It’s not your imagination: Economy class seats on airplanes are shrinking.

The average seat pitch, a rough measure of legroom, has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has shriveled from 18 inches to about 16 ½.

Meanwhile, the airline industry is enjoying record profits — some would argue as a result of cramming more seats on its planes.

But now consumer advocates want the shrinkage to stop. Passenger representatives on a key advisory committee are pushing the U.S. government to take strong regulatory action on the issue. And FlyersRights, an airline passenger advocacy group, just asked federal regulators to mandate a minimum seat width and pitch for commercial airlines. The group also delivered a petition with 30,000 signatures asking the government to take action.

Doing the “right thing”

Paul Hudson, FlyersRights’ president, says seat size decreases have raised concerns not just about comfort, but for the safety and health of passengers as well.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires airlines to test their emergency evacuation plans, and they must be realistic scenarios, including baggage thrown throughout the cabin and infant dummies that need to be carried. “These tests have not been run in aircraft with seat pitches under 31 inches, even though aircraft are operating with seat pitches as low as 28 inches,” Hudson says.

Even on an incident-free flight, a lack of space can affect a passenger’s health. Flying can cause potentially life-threatening blood clots from lack of movement and cramped spaces. The condition is called deep vein thrombosis, otherwise known as “economy-class syndrome,” according to Hudson.

“Reducing the seat space even more would only expand the issue and cause greater health, safety, and comfort concerns,” he says. But without minimum passenger seat and space regulations, Hudson believes that even airlines that wish to “do the right thing” will keep reducing seat sizes in order to remain competitive and profitable.

Airlines disagree. The government’s role in seat sizing for all forms of transportation — including car, bus, rail and air — is to determine what is safe, says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines For America (A4A), an airline trade group. “The Federal Aviation Administration has made that determination. As the safest mode of transportation, safety is always our highest priority.”

Carriers believe market forces should determine what kind of seats are offered on a plane, according to Medina. “Those offerings are one component of what drives competition and product differentiation among airlines,” she says. “And as with any commercial product or service, customers vote every day with their wallets.”

Panel fails to recommend minimums

Medina notes that the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) own Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection recently declined to make a recommendation on seat sizes. But Charles Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, the consumer representative on the panel, says it wasn’t due to any accord.

“Basically, when FlyersRights sent in their petition for a rulemaking regarding minimum seat sizes and personal space, our recommendation to look at seat sizes was [already] moot,” he says. “We were not going to reach consensus in any case.”

An airline representative on the panel, A4A attorney Dave Berg, objected to the notion that the government should establish a minimum amount of space per passenger. According to a report by the Associated Press, Berg said the difference between seat sizes “goes to the heart and soul” of airline competition, and it would be inappropriate for the government to interfere in such competition by a deregulated industry.

Leocha says the matter is far from dead, however. While it’s true that the airlines with the smallest seats are growing the fastest — “The old consumers-want-more-passengers-packed-into-planes argument,” he says — the issue will be considered in an upcoming regulatory rulemaking by the DOT or the FAA, he predicts.

“I was very disappointed that we didn’t come up with a committee recommendation on personal space on aircraft,” Leocha adds. “We will work together with FlyersRights.org on the rulemaking petition.”

Do consumers really “want” smaller seats?

Seat standards prompt a bigger discussion about what passengers actually want. True, consumers do vote with their wallets, rewarding budget carriers like Allegiant [fortune-stock symbol=”ALGT”] and Spirit [fortune-stock symbol=”SAVE”] with their business. Those carriers have some of the smallest seats, and lowest base fares, in the industry. Airlines interpret that as market demand for smaller seats, so they don’t want the government interfering in a lucrative business.

But this overlooks a few important facts. In most commoditized businesses, consumers favor the providers with the lowest prices. So reducing seat size until it’s minimally safe to fly — a determination that is historically made by the FAA — is the best business move for an airline. And fighting any such regulation makes sense, too.

But is cutting space the right move? Every coach flier knows it’s impossible to be objective about this issue. As someone who stands almost 6′ 2” and still remembers the bruised knees from his last flight, I’d prefer to have a minimum amount of space on an aircraft. But in an industry that’s constantly adding fees and cutting flights, it’s pretty clear that conditions in the back of the plane are not going to improve anytime soon.

Is it time to take a stand against shrinking airline seats?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend