Could This Be the End of Shrinking Airline Seats?

airplane cabin

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Travelers sick of squeezing themselves into too-small airplane seats rejoiced this week when Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, introduced a bill requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to set a minimum size for plane seats. But don’t expect more space in the cabin any time soon.

Unfortunately for cramped and cranky travelers, Cohen’s Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act, which he proposed as an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization bill, didn’t even make it out of committee. The amendment, which also would have required the FAA to set a minimum distance between rows of seats, was defeated by a vote of 26 to 33.

Cohen, for his part, says he’ll reintroduce the amendment once the bill reaches the House floor. For the Congressman, the push to halt airline seat shrinkage isn’t just about passenger comfort, it’s also about safety. “The FAA 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,” Cohen said in a statement. “That’s unacceptable.”

The width of the typical economy-class seat on a U.S. carrier has shrunk by several inches over the past 20 or so years, according to an analysis of data from SeatGuru. In the early 1990s, seats on major carriers like American and United were between 19 and 20 inches wide. Today, the same seat may be as narrow as 17 inches.

Airplane interior

Source: iStock

Seat pitch has also been shrinking (Pitch is the distance between one point on a seat to the same point on the seat in front or behind). In 1991, economy class seats typically had a pitch of no less than 31 inches and sometimes as great as 37 inches. On some United, American, and Delta flights these days, pitch is a cramped 30 inches, and on budget carrier Spirit, it’s a tiny 28 inches.

Of course, if you want extra space, you can get it — for a price. First- and business-class seats are still relatively spacious, and most major carriers offer economy upgrades if you need a bit more legroom.

More space is great for those who can afford it, but some people are concerned the tiny seats in the back of the plane put budget-minded flyers at risk. When the FAA conducts tests on how long it takes to evacuate a cabin during an emergency, it uses planes with a pitch of 31 inches. With less space, safety advocates say it might take longer to safely get out of the cabin.

Not only could crowded planes cause problems in an emergency, but close conditions can contribute to incidents of air rage. Plus, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which causes blood clots to form in the legs, can develop when people sit without moving for long periods of time. The condition isn’t linked directly to seat size, but in increasingly cramped cabins, passengers could be more likely to hunker down in their seat for the duration of the flight. This puts them at greater risk for a blood clot.

Delta Airlines plane at gate

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Hudson, president of passenger advocacy group FlyersRights, described DVT as “economy-class syndrome” in an interview with Fortune and said cramming more people into the same amount of space just makes the problem worse. “Reducing the seat space even more would only expand the issue and cause greater health, safety, and comfort concerns,” he said.

If Congress does eventually put a stop to shrinking seats, passengers could breathe a little easier. Yet a mandate to increase seat size could hurt flyers in another place — their wallets.

“The only way we can offer a low airfare … is to increase the seating density so we can divide the cost of operating a flight among the greatest number of people possible,” Keith Hansen, director of government affairs for budget carrier Allegiant Air, told the Los Angeles Times. “If airlines are forced to reduce the number of seats, inevitably there would be an increase and it would price out part of the traveling public.”

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