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Ed Perkins on Travel: Seats too tight? Let FAA know

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Seats of economy class in airplane.

Unless you travel exclusively in first class or by private jet, you've encountered flying in the "economy," "coach," or "main" cabin of a jet plane. Chances are, you've found those seats to be tight — too tight for today's travelers. Back in 2018, Congress seemed to think so and it asked the FAA to issue standards for minimum seat size. And, here four years later, FAA finally agreed: It's about to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) asking for public comments on possible future minimum seat size standards.

FAA's focus is safety. The primary safety issue is whether today's high-density seating allows travelers to evacuate a "survivable" crash — one where an airplane passenger cabin remains more or less intact after landing or impact — before being killed by fire or smoke inhalation. A second concern is risk of deep vein thrombosis due to inability to move around. FAA's final decision will be based solely on safety; comfort won't be part of the equation.

Previous FAA evacuation tests have been faulty. Yes, FAA concluded tests and concluded that even today's tightest seating dimensions are adequate to meet the current safety standard: full evacuation of a cabin within 90 seconds. But the tests used to determine adequacy — most importantly, the latest tests — did not:

Take place in a full-size actual or replicated airplane cabin.

Include infants, elderly travelers, obese travelers, and disabled travelers in the test subject group.

Account for problems arising when parents try to assist children seated separately.

Account for demonstrated behavior of travelers who typically retrieve personal effects and carry-on baggage items even in emergencies.

Include the likely effects of panic that would almost always be present in an actual crash — and are inherently untestable.

There's no easy solution. If the FAA decides that some current seating is too tight, adjusting front-to-rear space ("pitch") is easy: Seats in today's jetliners are mounted on tracks permitting quick pitch adjustments in increments of about an inch or two-to-three centimeters. Adding an extra inch of pitch would increase per-passenger costs by no more than 3 percent or so. But there's no easy fix for seat width, which is limited by the number of seats in each row that fit within the fixed width of a cabin. Most domestic flying in the U.S. currently uses either Airbus 320 or Boeing 737 plane families, and will continue to do so for at least two more decades. And the typical six-across seats in those planes are already as wide as they can get: Any significant improvement in width would require airlines to switch from six- to five-across seats.

Big changes can also mean unintended consequences. Airlines may not want to be seen lobbying against "safety," but they surely don't want to be forced into any de-densification of existing standards. They will claim — correctly — that being forced into five-across A320 and B737 seating would necessarily result in fare increases of 20 percent or so.

FAA is in a bind. My take is that today's tightest seating is, in fact, unsafe, and I would like to see minimum space requirements. But I'm not optimistic. Although it would rather drop the issue, FAA will probably decide that it has to respond to the congressional mandate. It will likely drag its feet on new testing, however, instead claiming that computer simulations are adequate. In any case, I would be extremely surprised any resulting standards requiring that tightest-seating low-fare airlines increase current pitch. And an immediate requirement for wider seats is not going to happen: An overall 20 percent fare increase would be unacceptable, probably even to consumer advocates. At best, FAA could require wider bodies in the next generation clean-sheet designs for A320 and B737 replacements — at least 20 years away.

Your input. Starting in a few days, FAA will take public comments for 90 days on regulations.gov (search for "seat space"). No need for detail; FAA will most likely just tally the "yes" or "no" votes. And remember it's about safety, not comfort.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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