Are Too Small Airline Seats Illegal?

 

by Robert McGarvey

A judge now has the backs – and backsides – of coach class passengers. That’s because Judge Patricia Millett, sitting on the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, has authored an opinion that slams the FAA for ignoring “basic physics” as it has allowed airlines to shrink seat sizes.

Millett, in the majority opinion, called it “the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat.”

The Circuit Court’s decision has gotten lots of press coverage – but the decision is more narrow than it might seem. There’s good news in it, for coach passengers, but it is not the revolution touted by many headline writers.

The root of the case is that, as you know, seats have in fact gotten smaller – while we as a people have gotten bigger.  Two in three adults in the US are overweight or obese. One is three are obese.  

According to FlyersRights.org, seats are an inch and a half smaller than they were 15 years ago. The space between you and the passenger behind you has also shrunk, to as small as 28”. 35” was the usual pitch some years ago.  

Enter a case filed by FlyersRights.org, et. al. vs the FAA.  The case focused on FlyersRights’ attempt to persuade the FAA “to promulgate rules governing size limitations for aircraft seats to ensure, among other things, that passengers can safely and quickly evacuate a plane in an emergency.”

In response, the FAA denied the link between seat size and passenger health and safety.

Here’s how Millett summed up the case: “To support that conclusion, the Administration pointed to (at best) off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters. That type of vaporous record will not do—the Administrative Procedure Act requires reasoned decisionmaking grounded in actual evidence.”

Millett went on: “Flyers Rights expressed concern that the decrease in seat size, coupled with the increase in passenger size, imperiled passengers’ health and safety by slowing emergency egress and by causing deep vein thrombosis (a potentially fatal condition involving blood clots in the legs), as well as “soreness, stiffness, [and] other joint and muscle problems.”

Millett did not completely endorse the FlyersRights’ viewpoint. The opinion noted: “We agree with Flyers Rights that the Administration failed to provide a plausible evidentiary basis for concluding that decreased seat sizes combined with increased passenger sizes have no effect on emergency egress. But we disagree with Flyers Rights’ challenge to the Administration’s declination to regulate matters of physical comfort and routine health.”

She also noted: “The Administration’s rationale also blinks reality. As a matter of basic physics, at some point seat and passenger dimensions would become so squeezed as to impede the ability of passengers to extricate themselves from their seats and get over to an aisle. The question is not whether seat dimensions matter, but when.”

Millett added that some FAA research in fact corroborates the Flyers Rights viewpoint. “Indeed, an Administration study that addressed passenger size in a slightly different context actually corroborates Flyers Rights’ point. The study considered, among other things, the ability of wider passengers to pass through the emergency exit row and door. Importantly, this test found that increased passenger width had the greatest effect on exit speed of all the variables tested.”

Millett further noted: “The problems with the Administration’s position do not stop there. Even with respect to its unseen tests, the agency cannot say whether those tests accounted for increased passenger size, which is a critical component of the egress problem raised by Flyers Rights’ petition. When questioned at oral argument, counsel for the Administration was unaware whether such tests take into account larger passengers.”

Sort through the court’s thoughts and where the FAA dropped the ball was around the possible relationship between smaller seats and passenger safety.  

In places, Millett agreed with the FAA. For instance: “Specifically, with respect to the risk of deep vein thrombosis, the Administration cited evidence showing that it rarely occurs and, regardless, is not caused by seat size or spacing.”

Here too: “Flyers Rights also noted passenger problems with ‘soreness, stiffness, [and] other joint and muscle problems’ in its petition for rulemaking….Given that those conditions are commonplace, temporary, and non-life threatening discomforts, Flyers Rights’ petition failed to demonstrate that the Administration erred in declining to undertake immediate rulemaking.”

As for what the court ordered, here it is: “We grant Flyers Rights’ petition for review in part, and remand to the Administration for a properly reasoned disposition of the petition’s safety concerns about the adverse impact of decreased seat dimensions and increased passenger size on aircraft emergency egress.”

So the FAA is tasked with more research on the possible links between smaller seats and passenger safety.

Will we get bigger seats as an upshot?  More comfortable seats? That’s just not likely.  

But at least airlines – and the FAA – are on notice that seat dimensions can be considered by a court and, in the event there are health and safety impacts, the court is willing to order the FAA to exercise oversight.

Just don’t count on bigger, plusher seats in coach. That really isn’t a likely consequence of this order.

 

A Nation of Cheapskates

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

A new poll makes clear that we have become a nation of cheapskates when it comes to hotel housekeepers. The poll, via CredirCards.com, delivers the bad news.  31% of us never tip hotel housekeepers.

Never.

And that one in three of us is comfortable enough with the choice to reveal it to a pollster.

Just 27% of us always tip hotel housekeepers.

That leaves 42% who can go either way.

Pity the poor housekeeper.

In much of the country housekeepers earn minimum wage.  And that isn’t a living wage.  The federal minimum is $7.25 per hour. That’s $290 per week.  About $1200 per month.

Ouch.

In some, heavily unionized places – Las Vegas, San Francisco, New York – housekeepers earn upwards of $16 per hour.  Maybe over $20.  

For their wages, hotel housekeepers typically clean 12 to 14 rooms per day. There’s some variation depending upon the size of the room, the service level of the hotel, and whether housekeepers work in teams.

But at the end of the day, a housekeeper does a lot of work for little money.

I have always left a tip. I cannot recall ever not leaving a tip.  If I ever did it was pure forgetfulness.

Years ago, in Boston, I drove a taxi. I developed a healthy respect for tips and people who leave them.   Of course I always tip taxi drivers.

That said, I am all in with Danny Meyer and his campaign to rid fine dining of tips.  Many – including both diners and restaurant workers – say boo to Meyer.  But, personally, I’d rather the servers were better paid and that I didn’t have to tip, unless I want to, a practice that already prevails in much of Europe.  Of course I always leave a tip in Europe – old habits die hard – but generally single digits.

So why am I all in on tipping housekeepers? Because they are poorly paid – I know that – and also because, in my experience, the person most important to my satisfaction with a hotel stay is the housekeeper.  

When my bed is properly made, towels refreshed and the bathroom cleaned, coffee service refilled, trash emptied from the wastebasket, I’m happy.   I’m ready for another day.

And just about always all that stuff happens.  

Women incidentally are better tippers than men, regarding housekeepers, according to the poll.  47% of women always/mostly tip hotel housekeepers, compared to 33% of men.

Another curiosity when it comes to tipping in restaurants,men,  Republicans, northeasterners and credit/debit card users  to a media 20%.  Women, Democrats, southerners, and csh users tip 15%.

There’s no comparable breakdown for hotel housekeepers.

But if you are in the don’t usually tip them category, give it another thought.  They slog through our messes and, sadly, many are also subjected to sexual abuses by guests and for this they earn minimum wage.

How much to tip?  Some guests tell me they tip $5/day, more when they make special requests.  

TripAdvisor, in its tipping tips, suggests $2 to $5 per night.  That makes sense to me.

Should you tip more if your stay is a big room at a swank hotel, rather than snug quarters at a Motel 6? That’s a point of argument.  Some claim the housekeeper at the posh hotel is typically better paid and will clean fewer rooms. Others say precisely because they clean fewer rooms, they need more generous tips. Both sides have their points.  Make your own choice.

Should you tip daily?  Many urge this.  That way, the tip goes to the person who cleans the room that day.  The American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) – which suggests tipping $1 to $5 daly – – recommends leaving the money in a clearly marked envelope daily.

That’s good advice.  If there’s $2 in change on an end table, how’s the housekeeper to know it’s a tip?  Make it explicit.

Just do it.

You want a clean room, we all do, and, sure, I’ll agree that housekeepers should be better paid and in that event the need to tip will vanish.

But until that happens, I say tip.

Do Credit Unions Have a Friend in the CFPB?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

The headline in a recent issue of Credit Union Times made my heart smile: “Credit Union Comes to the Aid of CFPB.”  

The fact that this is news is disturbing but it also is fact that it is news because – generally – what I hear from credit union leaders is a deep seated hostility towards the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and I just don’t get it.

That’s why when Self-Help Credit Union joined with the Center for Responsible Lending to offer support to CFPB in court actions that indeed is news.  

As for the CFPB hostility, it is thick. CUNA for instance has slammed CFPB and, per CuTimes, in the Trump era, it has “painted a target on it.”

The puzzlement is that the only credit union that has been slapped hard by CFPB is Navy Federal, the nation’s largest, which in late 2016 signed a consent decree admitting some unsavory debt collection practices.  Navy was ordered to pay $23 million to affected members as well as a $5.5 million penalty.  

Navy, earlier, had had figured in CFPB reporting over complaints filed against it.  The only other credit unions that rated a mention were PenFed, State Employees’ and BECU and, well, when only four credit unions warrant notice by a regulator this hardly seems a crisis to me.

Besides, CFPB mainly spends its time pursuing very big banks and also sleazy law firms, mortgage lenders and such like. Here’s the list of recent enforcement actions.  What’s not to like in it?

Why were credit unions formed in the first instance? Because banks largely ignored the financial needs of working Americans and often, too, they ripped them off as opportunity arose. So the bold and noble idea took hold that the cooperative framework could be harnessed to enable workers to lend to workers and to offer kindness wherever possible.

In the height of the mortgage crisis I recall conversations with numerous credit union CEOs who told me they were working hard to never foreclose on a mortgage, to find smart ways to restructure members’ loan agreements, to do what could be done – legally -to help people stay in their homes.

And they meant what they said.

Bankers, meantime,issued statements assuring shareholders that their interests were protected.

It’s a wholly different world, credit unions versus banks.

CFPB of course has a $10 billion size threshold before it exercises direct supervision – and that is about five credit unions.  Out of roughly 5900.  That means about 5900 have no direct relationship with CFPB.  

Credit union operations experts tell me that – as Marvin Umholtz elaborated – “nearly all of CFPB’s rulemakings affect CUs of all sizes.”

I’m sure that’s true and I am also sure many credit union executives – most – resent yet more layers of federal supervision and mandatory compliance steps.

I don’t blame them.  

But here’s the deal: CFPB is in the business of doing what credit unions also are supposed to do. Watch out for and help protect Americans who need help in navigating the financial services universe.

The other day the New York Times ran an editorial, “Hands Off the Consumer Finance Bureau.”  

The Times, in the piece, said that Republicans in Congress want to fire Cordray, the CFPB chief, and weaken the agency.  That would be a mistake, said the Times: “The consumer bureau is the only federal agency with the sole mission of looking out for the interests of ordinary Americans in their dealings with banks and other lenders.”

The Times added; “Mr. Trump would do well to let Mr. Cordray finish his term. After all, he has done a very good job protecting ordinary people from the powerful elites Mr. Trump spent much of his campaign raging against.”

These are thoughts credit union leaders need to mull. It is easy to rail against CFPB and regulation. But what if CFPB’s chief enemies are also the enemies of credit unions and many of their members?
What if….