Just Say No to Congressional Regulation of Airplane Seats


By Robert McGarvey


Talk about a swampy idea.  A gaggle of Senators and Congressmen have joined together to support legislation, called SEAT,  that would set minimum seat sizes on commercial planes – and I struggle to come up with a kindly view of the why

The legislators also want a minimum space between rows of seats.

They say: “The SEAT Act would establish a minimum seat size on commercial airlines as well as a minimum distance between rows of seats to protect the safety and health of airline passengers.”

“Airline passengers are tired of being squeezed,” said Congressman Steve Cohen, one of the primary backers. “Shrinking seat sizes in airplanes isn’t just a matter of comfort but the safety and health of passengers as well. Planes need to be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency. In addition, doctors have warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who do not move their legs enough during longer flights. The safety and health of passengers must come before airline profits.”

Color me as anti.

Understand, I am not a small person, around 6’1”, 190 lbs., and – wherever possible – I have always sought to fly upfront for the greater space.  I have had my knees smashed by the seat in front of me, and I have also been unable to use a laptop because there just was not enough room.

I have written, with some favor, about the controversial gadget Knee Defender that prevents an airplane seat from reclining.  I have not used it myself but I understand those who do.

I have also written a number of times about DVT – deep vein thrombosis – and while I would not deem myself an expert on the condition, I take DVT seriously enough to pretty consistently get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour in a flight.  The first DVT story I recall writing was in 2003, the most recent was 2015.  

So, definitely, I am sympathetic to complaints that too snug airplane seats are potentially bad for our health.

I am also sympathetic to the claim that too snug seats are bad for safe and fast emergency exits from planes, another point made by the SEAT advocates.  

This is probably made all the worse by the obesity epidemic in which we find ourselves Too big people in too small seats is indeed a catastrophe in the making.

Generally, too, I am in the same Washington DC camp as Cohen and fellow SEAT backers Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez, Dianne Feinstein, Ed Markey, and more.

So why don’t I support SEAT?

Know that a very similar bill was introduced in the House and Senate last year. It was defeated.  But Cohen vowed to reintroduce it and here we are.  

Factor in the context that the US President is on record, often and loudly, opposing too much legislation – and it would not be hard to envision this president vetoing SEAT if it reached his desk.

Sure, shrinking seat size is an issue, as more airlines want to squeeze more of us into a small space.  Here’s a Telegraph round up, from 2010, of seat sizes.  If anything, seats today are smaller.

Here’s a 2016 round-up by the Independent.  

Meantime, BA recently indicated it planned to shrink seat pitch on many planes, in order to better compete with low priced rivals.  

All bad.

The legislators, in their press release, documented that if you think things are snugger in coach you’re right: “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.”

But a Congressionally mandated seating chart is madness.

What do we need instead of legislation? Loud, persistent voices complaining about too small seats – and just as important is putting our money where our mouths are. A for instance of the latter was a January JoeSentMe column by Chris Barnett, where he observed the advantages of a bus trip for an intra-California hop: “Seating on the two-year-old motorcoach was far more comfortable than any U.S. airline’s coach or premium economy class.”

Another, smart choice: drive instead of fly.  It may well be cheaper with today’s cheap gas prices.  It almost certainly will be more comfortable – and quite possibly no longer in time – than flying, particularly when it’s, say, a four hour drive from New York to Boston or to Washington DC.

Raise your voice if you want more space in economy.

And back it up with your wallet.

That’s how to wake up penny pinching airline executives.

Those execs already know the Cohen SEAT bill is DOA.  They won’t break into a nervous sweat over it. They’ll probably have a good chuckle about it.  

But if they hear enough anger from passengers – and if enough use their wallet power, now you may have gotten their attention.


4 thoughts on “Just Say No to Congressional Regulation of Airplane Seats”

  1. Often, we have laws to either put everyone on the same footing or when differing opinions cause grief to others.
    A good example of this is smoking bans. If one city banned smoking in bars and the city beside it did not, then it was a difficult situation. Banning smoking in all of them solves the problem. Even today, there are those who would allow smoking if they could.

    Another example is hotel resort fees. In places where they are pervasive, even hotels that wouldn’t normally have them do so because they can’t compete with those who show fake prices and tack on the fee.

    Airlines have a lot of regulations to deal with and not all of them are public facing. I have no doubt that if these regulations were relaxed, that a lot of airlines would cut corners, because their ideas of what would ffect safety would likely be greatly influenced by finance people willing to modify their view in order to stay more competitive.

    The seat size issue has been a problem for a long time. Airlines cut the price and put 100 extra seats in economy on a 777. The seats sell and they claim that passengers “asked” or “want” the smaller seats. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sales factor is the price, not the seat. Never have I heard of a sane rational person asking for smaller seats. This is a classic rationalization where something else is the motivator and the seat size is a facilitator. This option needs to be forcibly taken away from the airlines. They have shown they will abuse this and minimums need to be set. If they want to make the seats even bigger than the minimum, fine.

    Your alternatives, such as taking a bus or driving might work fine for some trips, and in fact I have done so, but driving in avalanche areas in the winter is not such a good option and I don’t know of a good bus service that operates coaches to London from here.

    Laws are meant to prevent people from profiting to the detriment of others or from changing the nature of a business to selfishly further their own goals.

    Maybe an international body needs to set these rules. The market forces you suggest have so far not improved things at all.

  2. I should also add that fuel surcharges need to be made illegal. Given their disproportionate percentage of the total cost relative to the percentage of costs that fuel actually is (and realizing it was supposed to compensate for “additional” and not originally expected fuel costs) this is yet another tool where it might have had a basis to use it initially but has been abused as yet another financial tool – since many compensations are based upon the portion of the fare that is called the fare. They also increased the cost of award travel considerably. Realistically, a fuel surcharge should only be needed where an advance ticket was sold and the cost changed unreasonably. There is no need for fuel surcharge now.

    I am not saying the airlines should be fully re-regulated, but all transport businesses should be forced to provide safe and reasonably comfortable services and should be prohibited from unrealistically masking fees as a way to decrease costs.

    A free market economy still needs laws to keep things real.

  3. Free market forces are not going get the airlines to change their seat size or spacing. I fly almost exclusively international from the west coast to Europe and Asia. There is too much of a monopoly on most international routes for airlines to even care. I personally avoid 787 coach whenever possible as most of the airlines have installed 9 across seating when it was designed for 8 across. They are now doing the same with the 777 and adding an extra seat per row to squeeze out more revenue. Twelve to 16 hours in these configurations is hazardous not just to your physical safety but also your sanity and is a real safety issue for evacuation.

  4. People have been raising their voices for decades now with no results. There has been less and less airline competition, so there are often no real options. Regulating seat size is not all that different from requiring engines powerful enough so that if one goes out, the plane can still fly. (Think of how much cheaper tickets would be without such a requirement: cheaper planes, less fuel and so on.)

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