Space wars are shifting to the human rights front

Do you have the right to room on a plane?

If you answered “no,” you’re probably with the majority of American travelers. After all, airlines are private companies, and you always have the option of paying more for an upgraded seat, don’t you?

But recent efforts by consumer advocates are turning the conventional wisdom about space on its head. Taken together, their initiatives have started an important debate about whether air travelers have a basic right to room on a plane, no matter where they sit. If these consumer groups win, it could trigger a tectonic shift that might improve air travel for everyone.

Why are we having this discussion now, more than six decades after the start of the jet age? Because seat space is shrinking at a troubling rate. The average economy-class seat pitch, a rough measure of legroom, has plummeted from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. And the average width of a coach class seat has contracted from 18 inches to about 16½ inches.

The changes have benefited airlines, which are now enjoying record profits. But passengers are feeling the pinch — literally — and now consumer advocates are launching a coordinated effort to defend your right to room.

Two consumer organizations, Travelers United (disclosure: I am the group’s co-founder) and FlyersRights, have staged a coordinated effort to change government policy on airline seats. FlyersRights has petitioned the federal government to create a regulation mandating minimum seat width and seat pitch for commercial airlines. And Travelers United, representing consumers on a government advisory committee, has lobbied to address the amount of space allotted to air travelers.

Paul Hudson, FlyersRights’ president, said decreases in seat size have raised not only comfort concerns, but also safety and health issues. Emergency evacuation plans aren’t adequately tested on aircraft with shrunken seat configurations, and travelers face other health risks, such as deep vein thrombosis, also called “economy-class syndrome,” he says.

Reducing seat size further, he notes, “would only expand the issue and cause greater health, safety and comfort concerns.”

The Department of Transportation (DOT) hasn’t formally responded to the petition.

Meanwhile, the consumer representative on the DOT’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection has pushed the government to take action on the issue. Charles Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, says he successfully persuaded the committee to recommend testing smaller seats for safety. But efforts to persuade the panel to take a stand on seat size were blocked by the committee’s airline representative.

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

Airlines view the committee’s failure to recommend seat standards as a vindication of their position — that government should not regulate, but instead allow market forces to set seat size.

“Competition should determine what is offered,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an airline trade group. “Those offerings are one component of what drives competition and product differentiation among airlines. And as with any commercial product or service, customers vote every day with their wallets.”

Just a few days after this argument erupted, I had the opportunity to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. As I viewed a rare copy of the Magna Carta, and toured the exhibits that chronicled centuries of struggles for human rights, I wondered: Could we also have a basic right to space on an aircraft?

It sounds almost laughable next to other basic human rights, until you consider the fact that the federal government already regulates the amount of space animals get in the cargo hold. So it has already said, in effect, that some passengers have the right to space — even if they aren’t human.

“There should be some protection against overcrowding,” Joanie Connell, a social psychologist, tells me. “Especially for legroom and for body space. I have long legs and they get cramped, especially when someone reclines their seat in front of me.”

Other observers agree.

“There is indeed an interesting argument to be made for a basic human right to physical space on an airplane,” says Laine Strutton, a Winter Park, Fla.-based human rights expert. “It is part of a larger discussion about the fundamental need for movement.”

On commercial airliners, you could argue that passenger space is needed to fulfill other legal rights that we already agree on, such as those of members of the disabled community who are entitled to sufficient room under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or a new mother who needs room to nurse her child, she says.

Some will certainly see that as government interference in a free market. But that argument doesn’t hold up when you take a closer look, Strutton says. The state has intervened countless times to regulate practices within the private sector, including safety regulations within the auto industry.

“I foresee a time when the idea of minimum space standards on airplanes is as readily accepted as the idea that all cars should have seat belts,” she predicts.

Hudson, of FlyersRights, sees parallels between today’s discussion and one that happened a century ago.

When there were no effective regulations on transatlantic transportation, he says, steerage passengers were packed in egregious conditions, “and their fares actually subsidized first-class passengers as well as fattening shipping company profits,” he says.

But it’s the safety argument that will win this debate. Hudson hopes government regulators will act before a disaster forces them to. He’s worried specifically that seats on some of the discount carriers are wedged so closely together that it would be impossible to evacuate the aircraft safely during an emergency.

When the Titanic embarked on her maiden voyage without enough lifeboats, the dynamic was much the same as it is today, he says. It took more than 1,500 deaths to persuade regulators to improve safety practices, including better ship design and adding enough lifeboats.

“Even today,” he adds, “laissez-faire fanatics and most airlines are against all regulation.”

But the tide is slowly turning, as it has for so many other human rights issues over time, in favor of sensible and compassionate regulation that protects the lives of passengers. There’s evidence that even airlines understand that regulation is inevitable. Advocates say they’ve signaled an openness to address some of the health and safety concerns they’ve raised.

Of course, critics will warn that the cost of a plane ticket will rise and that government interference will stifle competition. But in the end, do you really want to be flying in an ever-shrinking, unsafe and unhealthy space that doesn’t respect your human dignity?

Should the government mandate minimum seat space for airlines?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

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,,, and

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

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. 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 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

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 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,, 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