The FAA has asked for comment on the small airplane seats. Will they grow?


” Cramped “. “Unsafe.” “Torture.”

Many of the more than 26,000 comments on airline seat sizes submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration during its recent public comment period, which ended last week, paint a grim picture of the experience of airlines. passengers on the country’s largest airlines.

The FAA will now sift through those comments and decide whether or not to issue a rule on minimum seat dimensions. But even if you find the economy seats uncomfortable, this review isn’t about luxury; the FAA assesses seat size for passenger safety during emergency evacuations.

“We will review all applicable comments. Our review has no set timeframe,” an agency spokesperson told The Washington Post in an email Monday.

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What prompted the FAA review?

Airlines have pushed back on calls from consumer advocates and members of Congress to widen their seats, arguing that the seats are wide enough and far enough apart to allow for quick emergency evacuation, which the FAA says is the main due to seat size revision.

Congress passed the Seat Egress in Air Travel Act, or SEAT Act, as part of the FAA’s reauthorization bill that was signed into law in 2018, requiring the agency to issue regulations on minimum safety requirements. seats “necessary for the safety of passengers”.

In response, the agency conducted mock emergency evacuations and reviewed past incidents involving evacuations, none of which found a need to increase seat size.

“The FAA has conducted and continues to conduct extensive reviews and research of evacuation standards, and there is no factual or data predicate to promulgate additional rules regarding aircraft seat dimensions” , wrote two industry trade groups for airlines, Airlines for America and International. Air Transport Association, in their public comments.

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These simulated emergency evacuations have been criticized for relying on healthy participants under the age of 60 and not simulating the actual conditions of an emergency, such as cabin smoke and passengers trying to grab their hand luggage. The Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General noted in 2020 that these simulations often do not account for tight seating on many airlines.

In an Oct. 27 letter to the FAA, 25 members of Congress called the evacuation study “deeply flawed” and urged the agency to analyze the impact of seat sizes on “all unrepresented demographic groups.” “in the study.

The FAA wrote in a March letter to members of Congress that its studies should be conducted in accordance with “regulatory and ethical standards for human testing,” and acknowledged that the studies “provide useful information, but not necessarily definitive”.

The agency said the public comment period – which ran from August to November 1 – would allow it to better assess the impacts on all passengers, including “children, people over 60 and disabled people”.

Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, said the FAA is likely to “throw this decision down the road” amid intense pressure from the airline industry.

“Airlines don’t want the FAA or any government agency telling them how to run their business,” Harteveldt said. Airlines will likely argue that minimum seat requirements will drive higher fares for customers and set back their sustainability efforts because more seats mean less carbon output per passenger, he said. .

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Harteveldt predicted that, at most, the FAA will set a floor for legroom “where the low-cost airlines currently are,” such as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant.

Since FAA regulators focus exclusively on safety rather than passenger comfort, major regulatory action should be the result of a safety study indicating that narrow seats are too difficult to evacuate, Harteveldt said. .

He said the FAA needed to redo its evacuation tests with the legroom and seat width offered on low-cost airlines, a completely full cabin, carry-on baggage and a diverse set of passengers, including new travellers, seniors, people with disabilities and travelers who do not speak English.

“Unless the FAA does a really thorough, really objective set of safety-related evacuation studies and bases its conclusion on that, it has no reason to make any decisions,” Harteveldt said.

William J. McGee, senior aviation researcher at the American Economic Liberties Project, said the tightness of modern aircraft seats is a “life-and-death safety issue.”.”

“The FAA has done a very poor job in recent years overseeing emergency evacuation testing,” he said. “Obviously that goes hand in hand with the issue of tighter seats.”

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In public comments to the FAA, McGee and other consumer advocates also argued that narrow seats pose a health risk, due to the likelihood of deep vein thrombosis or exposure to food allergies from other passengers. .

“We argued that health is a safety issue,” and therefore under the responsibility of FAA review, McGee said.

Can the FAA force airlines to expand seats?

Outside of FAA regulations, there are few ways to force airlines to increase their seat sizes, Harteveldt said. The FAA’s parent agency, the Department of Transportation, has largely avoided regulating airline business matters since deregulation in 1978, he said.

The only other mechanism by which the seats could expand is through the advancement of seat and aircraft construction. Airlines for America said in a statement that its member airlines, which include most major U.S. carriers, “continue to invest in a wide range of innovative technologies to maximize personal space in the cabin.”

Airbus recently announced a design change to its A350 aircraft that would reduce the thickness of its interior walls, allowing each seat to be 0.7 inches wider in a typical economy nine-abreast configuration, according to Reuters. However, airlines could also choose to use the extra space for a 10th seat in the row, which would result in all seats being 1 inch narrower.

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“The days when you could relax comfortably in an economy class seat that was wide enough to be comfortable and had enough leg room are long gone,” Harteveldt said.

McGee recommended that travelers choosing a seat check their flight on Seatguru, which provides information on seat pitch (legroom) and width, as well as reviews of individual seats by other passengers.

McGee said he was optimistic the recent review would “move the needle at the FAA,” but warned that the agency failing to take action now could allow carriers to make their seats even smaller.

“If it doesn’t, the airlines will take it as carte blanche to do whatever they want with the seats,” he said. “And if you think it’s bad now, it’s only going to get worse.”

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