Amendments to Establish Minimum Seat Size Standards Aboard Airplanes Defeated

KLM Boeing 747-400 Economy Class Brian Cohen

“The average distance between rows of seats has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has also shrunk from 18 inches to about 16 ½.”

That is the rationale behind the Seat Egress in Air Travel — or SEAT — Act which was introduced to direct the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States to establish minimum seat size standards for the safety and health of airline passengers.

Amendments to Establish Minimum Seat Size Standards Aboard Airplanes

“Consumers are tired of being squeezed both physically and fiscally by airlines,” Steve Cohen — who is a member of Congress representing the ninth district in Tennessee and a member of the Subcommittee on Aviation of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — said in this statement which was posted on his official Internet web site. “Shrinking seat sizes isn’t just a matter of comfort but safety and health as well. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency, yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s smaller seats. Doctors have also warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who can’t move their legs during longer flights.”

Those who are knowledgeable pertaining to reduced seat pitches and legroom between seats aboard commercial airplanes are concerned that the ability to evacuate in the event of an emergency could hinder the egress of passengers.

“The lack of legroom on some planes is not only uncomfortable, we are not even sure if it is safe,” Janice Hahn — who is a member of Congress representing the 44th district in California and is also a member of the Subcommittee on Aviation of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — said in this statement which was posted on her official Internet web site. “The safety of passengers cannot be sacrificed for a higher bottom line. Frankly, cutting costs by shrinking seat sizes at a time when fuel prices are low, and airline profits are soaring, is just greedy at the expense of the passengers’ comfort and safety.”

Seat Egress in Air Travel Act Defeated

The amendment to House of Representatives bill 4441 — also known as the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016 — which Steve Cohen co-authored with Janice Hahn was defeated by fellow members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday, February 11, 2016 with 26 votes in support of the amendment and 33 votes opposed…

…along with a second amendment from the duo which would require the Federal Aviation Administration to test the safety of smaller seats which are increasingly common aboard commercial airplanes.


“Refusing to even mandate that the FAA study personal space on aircraft and evacuation of aircraft with the newly packed-in seating, and including an amendment that legalizes misleading and deceptive advertising, is simply irresponsible”, said Charlie Leocha, who is the chairman of Travelers United, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership consumer advocacy organization that works to provide consumers an articulate and reasoned voice in decisions that affect consumers across the entire spectrum of travel. “Today’s FAA bill markup was a sad example of a sad committee ruining what could have been good, courageous legislation.”

There has been no word yet at press time from any representatives of Airlines for America — which is a trade group for the commercial aviation industry in the United States — pertaining to reaction of the defeat of both amendments.


There comes a point where basic comfort and safety for passengers cannot be compromised anymore at the expense of corporate profits. Whether or not the airlines have reached or breached that point with regard to minimum recommendations is debatable; but there is only so much space aboard an airplane — and to keep thinning down seats and squeezing more of them in the same space is akin to watering down soup or a beverage: eventually, the experience is compromised to the point where the consumer no longer can enjoy it and will not be willing to pay the price for it.

We seem to be in a society where if something is wrong or not working, the solution is to overcorrect it. Yes, there were the days when airlines were hemorrhaging billions of dollars per year while giving passengers more room throughout coach — remember that? — and having them enjoy amenities which airlines simply could not sustain. Yet — at that time — that was all airlines knew in terms of how to retain customers. If they were not desperate, they sure seemed to be close to that point…

…but today — despite raking in record profits quarter after quarter — airlines are still attempting to squeeze every last penny out of their passengers, who have to endure sitting closer to each other in tighter spaces in seats with little padding.

Using government regulation to force an issue which should be impacted by supply and demand of the market is not necessarily a benefit — but with the tightened oligopoly of the commercial aviation industry in the United States, passengers do not have many choices — especially with the hub-and-spoke system of flights by most airlines. Upgrades to the premium class cabin may be fewer and amenities may be becoming more scant; but passengers have a right to minimum standards for basic comfort and safety when traveling by any conveyance regulated by the government — whether it be airplane, bus, train or boat — regardless of what they pay for a ticket…

…lest we see the day where airlines decide to eliminate seats and have a standing room only section for passengers

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.


    • Brian Cohen says

      The sad part is that this is not an amendment which would potentially be significantly costly to airlines had it been approved, Andy Shuman

      …and the good part would be that once the tests had been completed and confirmed, the airlines would not have to continuously keep doing them — although perhaps a periodic refresher test every so often probably would not hurt.

  1. Counsellor says

    Disgusting! To vote against a requirement that the configuration be tested for safety is inexcusable. One can only imagine “campaign contributions” were influential in that vote.

    Can you publish the names and states of the Representatives who voted against the requirement, please? It might be something to keep in mind during Primary season, and definitely at the general election in November.

  2. Marshall Jackson says

    While I haven’t read the Congressman’s amendment in totality, airlines are required to demonstrate that any new seat configuration meets evacuation requirements. It’s required by 14 CFR 121.291.

    • Counsellor says

      The problem, as I understand it, is that the airlines do the test (after a number of “run-throughs” or rehearsals) with their own employees, all of whom are in good condition and generally young. Valid testing should involve a mix of people, none of whom have repeatedly practiced the evacuation in advance.

      • Brian Cohen says

        I know plenty of frequent fliers who would be more than happy to test new seats, Counsellor — and I am certain that you do too.

        One minor issue is that they would probably have to agree to a non-disclosure, as airlines are loathe to reveal new products such as seats before they are ready — but again, that would be a minor issue…

    • Brian Cohen says

      That is correct, Marshall Jackson; and I have personally witnessed some of the testing being performed at Delta Air Lines.

  3. Jeff Nudi says

    I am a frequent flyer. For the last seven or eight years almost exclusively on Delta for several reasons not pertinent to this thread. I am also a taxpayer who is tired of all the whining that goes on in the world today. There is no law that says you have to fly in an airplane. There is no law that says you have to be comfortable, if you choose to fly. I remember the days before tee ball and everyone gets a trophy, when you did business with folks that you thought treated you fairly, and you did not do business with those that you felt were not treating you fairly. If you are not happy with an airline (or any other business) go to the competition. Or better yet, walk or drive or take a bus, or find a way to not deal with an entire industry industry, if you feel that every one is as bad as the others.This should not be the business of politicians who already seem to have enough reasons to not do what they should be doing.

    • Brian Cohen says

      Normally, I would agree with you, Jeff Nudi: let the market decide instead of government…

      …but for a person who lives in Sacramento or Little Rock or Charleston who wants to go to Johannesburg or Sydney or Seoul, walking or taking a bus is not a viable option. That is because of the oligopoly of four major airlines in the United States who usually follow what each other does like lemmings.

      Sure, there is international competition with three of the four major airlines in the United States from gateway cities such as New York and Los Angeles — but not from the cities I mentioned. Should they take a bus from those cities and meet up with a foreign airline? Let us at least be realistic here.

      Regardless of what conveyance a passenger uses — even walking, which is why sidewalks exist — there comes a point where the basic comfort of a typical human being is breached by companies focused on revenue and profits. Similar standards exist for food, clothing, shelter and other products and services in the United States. Why not seats aboard airplanes — especially in those where a passenger could be seated for as long as 16 straight hours?

  4. Tony says

    Has anyone researched how much money the airlines have given the House members who voted against this? I would bet that they all received a donation from some lobbyist of the airlines.
    Anyone want to bet???

  5. Eric Tullock says

    I have to agree with Tony. Until we can stop all of the cash flowing into Washington D.C. via the “lobbyist contention” nothing in this country will ever be passed by any U.S. congress that would actually benefit American citizens, unless of course it just so happened that it strongly benefited some special interest group(s) or lobbyist(s) that wanted the deed done initially. If something they passed actually benefited “the people” that would merely end up being an unintended by-product of the initial course of action. But, that’s all for another line of discussions I guess…

    I really would be interested in seeing that list of those that voted against this bill though.

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