FAA asks travelers to weigh in on airline seat sizes

Photo (c) Ivan Sviatkovskyi EyeEm - Getty Images

Airlines that count on revenue-driven seat selection might be in for some changes

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently has no real minimum standards for seat sizes on airplanes, but that could be changing soon.

The agency has probably had its fill of disgruntled passengers who are tired of being cramped, and so has Congress. As part of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill, the FAA is being tasked with asking the public to weigh in on airline seat sizes. The Bill authorizes the FAA to “set minimums for seat pitch, width, and length necessary for the safety of passengers.”

The agency has until the end of fiscal year 2023 to get those standards in place, and it’s rushing to take care of business. Not only is the FAA asking for input from those who fly commercial airlines, but the agency has also been running airplane evacuation tests to try to figure out how seat dimensions affect a flight’s onboard safety. 

Seats got smaller while people got larger

Seat sizes have been dwindling for decades. Thirty years ago, fliers could expect a 19- to 20-inch seat width and a 34- to 35-inch seat pitch. Nowadays, it’s typical for travelers to see a 17-inch seat width and a 30- to 31-inch seat pitch. 

Complicating the situation is the fact that people are larger than they used to be, with the average adult now measuring two inches taller than they were in the 1960s and weighing as much as 30 pounds more.

“As a result, only about 25% of passengers can now fit in modern airline seats and passenger space in economy class where over 90% of passengers sit,” FlyersRights concluded.

This might not sit well with some airlines

In ConsumerAffairs' research on airline seat dimensions, Jet Blue, Air Canada, Virgin America, Hawaiian Airlines, American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Emirates all received a thumbs-up for the size of their seats.

In one review, JetBlue took the prize for having the largest pitch and the widest seats of the domestic airlines, with 32-inch pitches on most short-haul flights and 33-inch pitches on most long-hauls. Seat widths average 17.7 inches to 18.5 inches, and passengers can upgrade to seats with 37- to 41-inch pitches on select flights, according to SeatMaestro.

On the flip side of the coin, there are airlines that have done all they can to cram in a few extra seats to pull in some added revenue. A few years ago, both United and American were called out for adding up to 42 seats to their Boeing 727-200 jets. Consumers sought comfort in front-of-plane and extra legroom seating when the COVID-19 pandemic came along -- which are seats that produce some major ancillary revenue for the airline industry.

Anyone interested in commenting on the seat size situation can offer their thoughts here.

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