US Senator Pushes for Airplane Seat Regulations

Mar 9, 2016

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Seat size and pitch is always a hot topic, and now the federal government is considering getting involved. Today, TPG Associate Editor Emily McNutt chats economy seating with Chuck Schumer, one of the US Senate’s most outspoken traveler advocates.

Airplane seats in the economy cabin have always been tight, but at least they used to offer enough room for passengers to move around comfortably. But lately, seats seem to be continuously shrinking, and it feels like a constant battle with the airlines — and the person sitting in front of you — to fight for more legroom. The situation has now escalated to the point that one key lawmaker is proposing that the government step in and do something about it.

US Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer (D-NY) announced last week that he’s going to push for an amendment in the upcoming FAA Reauthorization Bill that will require a minimum seat measurement for airplanes. All travelers know this best — their legroom seems to be shrinking, but at what point does the space on an airplane seat become too small? Senator Schumer hopes that the FAA will establish some boundaries.

TPG Assistant Editor Matt Zuzolo found how tight 31-inch pitch really is during a grueling flight from LA to Maui.

Schumer has the stats to back his proposal. He says that pitch has dropped from 35 inches on the average economy seat to approximately 31 inches now after airline deregulation in the 1970s. And that’s including Spirit’s measly 28 inches of pitch with “pre-reclined” seats. In addition, seat width has shrunk from 18.5 inches in the 90s and 00s to approximately 17 inches today, and that’s with the average American’s expanding body.

The Senator told TPG he was very attached to the issue from a personal standpoint. “I’m not that tall — a little less than 6-foot, 1-inch,” he said. “And when I ride — and I ride in coach, generally — I take out of the pocket in front of me the bulletin, the air sickness bag and the safety folder so I get a quarter-inch more legroom.”

So how much space, exactly, does the Senator want to see with economy seats? That, he said, should be left to the FAA to determine a measurement that’s both safe and comfortable for people. He said he’ll abide by the FAA’s decision — at least initially. There have been attempts at getting the FAA to pass similar legislation in the past, most recently from Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN) who introduced the Safe Egress in Air Travel Act of 2016, or “SEAT Act.” However, that bill failed in committee. Senator Schumer said that his is similar to Rep. Cohen’s, but his is going to pass.

American's 787 economy cabin.
American’s 787 economy cabin.

To Senator Schumer, this issue extends far past party lines and is applicable to members of both parties, as well as everyday travelers, no matter their political stance. “I’ve had about 15 of my Senate colleagues — both Democrats and Republicans — come up to me and say what a great idea it is,” Schumer said. “We have gotten such feedback on this issue — people are stopping me in the streets. Rarely has such an issue generated such support so quickly.” It’s a safety issue in the sense that if something were to happen on board and everyone needed to evacuate, it’s much harder to get out of the aircraft when the seats are closer together, he said.

In addition to the safety issue, it’s also a comfort issue. The Senator often finds himself in the middle of the ongoing debate — to recline or not to recline. He said that he’s so used to the person in front of him reclining their seat and having his knees hit on impact that he doesn’t say anything anymore. The Senator errs on the side of the recliner in this instance, saying you know the person reclining is suffering too because they don’t have much room either.

The current FAA authorization ends on March 31, so Senator’s Schumer’s push comes at a time when it’s likely to make the greatest impact. Below is a breakdown of each domestic airline’s fleet, with the dimensions of each economy seat, the smallest of which is bolded:

Alaska Airlines

Alaska’s average seat pitch is the third-largest of those measured. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The dimension’s for Alaska’s fleet.

Pitch Width
Boeing 737-400 32 17
Boeing 737-700 32 17
Boeing 737-800 31-32 17
Boeing 737-900 32 17

Average pitch: 31.88
Average width: 17

American Airlines

American's A321T economy seat.
American’s A321T economy seat has 31-32 inches of pitch.

The dimensions for American’s fleet:

Pitch Width
Airbus A319 (V2) 31 18
Airbus A320 31 18
Airbus A321T 31-32 18
Airbus A330-200 31-32 17
Airbus A330-300 31 17
Boeing 737-800 31 17.2
Boeing 757-200 (Domestic) 31-32 17.2
Boeing 767-300 31 17.2
Boeing 777-200 31-32 17-18.5
Boeing 777-300ER 31 17
Boeing 787 31 17-18
Bombardier CRJ-200 31 17.3
Bombardier CRJ-700 31 17.3
Bombardier CRJ-900 (V3) 31 17.3
Dash-8 300 31 17
Embraer ERJ-140 31 17.3
Embraer ERJ-145 31 17.3
Embraer ERJ-170 31 18.25
Embraer ERJ-175 (V2) 31-32 18.25
Embraer ERJ-190 31 18.25
MD Super 80 31-32 18

Average pitch: 31.14
Average width: 17.53

Delta Air Lines

Delta's now number two in the US. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Delta has one of the largest averages for seat width. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The seat dimensions for Delta’s fleet:

Pitch Width
Airbus A319-100 (V1) 30-31 17.2
Airbus A320-200 30-31 18
Airbus A330-200 31-32 18
Airbus A330-300 31-32 18
Boeing 717-200 31 18.1
Boeing 737-700 30-31 17.2
Boeing 737-800 31-32 17.2
Boeing 737-900ER 30-31 17.2
Boeing 747-400 31-32 17.2
Boeing 757-200 31-33 17.2
Boeing 757-300 30-32 17.2
Boeing 767-300 31-32 17.9
Boeing 767-300ER 31-32 17.9
Boeing 767-400ER 31-32 17.9
Boeing 777-200ER 31-32 18.5
Boeing 777-200LR 31-32 18.5
McDonnell Douglas MD-88 31-33 18.1
McDonnell Douglas MD-90 30-31 18.1

Average pitch: 31.22
Average width: 17.74

Frontier Airlines

Low-cost carrier Frontier has some of the smallest seat pitch but largest seat width. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The seat dimensions for Frontier’s fleet:

Pitch Width
Airbus A319 28-31 18
Airbus A320 28-31 18

Average pitch: 29.5
Average width: 18

JetBlue Airways

JetBlue’s aircraft have the largest seat pitch and width in the skies.

The seat dimensions for JetBlue’s fleet:

Pitch Width
Airbus A320 34 17.8
Airbus A321 33 18
Embraer E-190 32 18.25

Average pitch: 33
Average width: 18.02

Southwest Airlines

The new seats are said to be the widest of any 737 U.S. carrier
Southwest has the second-largest average seat pitch.

The seat dimensions for Southwest’s fleet:

Pitch Width
Boeing 737-300 32-33 17
Boeing 737-500 32-33 17
Boeing 737-700 31 17
Boeing 737-800 32-33 17

Average pitch: 32.13
Average width: 17

Spirit Airlines

Spirit is offering
Spirit’s aircraft, on average, have the smallest seat pitch.

The seat dimensions for Spirit’s fleet:

Pitch Width
Airbus A319 28 17.75
Airbus A320 28 17.75
Airbus A321 28 17.75

Average pitch: 28
Average width: 17.75

United Airlines

Economy seats on United's 737.
Economy seats on United’s 737.

The seat dimensions on United’s fleet:

Pitch Width
Airbus A319 30 17.7
Airbus A320 30 17.7
Boeing 737-700 31 17.2
Boeing 737-800 (V2) 31 17.2
Boeing 737-900 (V1/V2) 31 17.3
Boeing 747-400 31 17
Boeing 757-200 (V1) 31 17
Boeing 757-300 31 17.2
Boeing 767-300 (Three Class) 31 18
Boeing 767-400ER 31 17.3
Boeing 777-200 (V1/V2) 31 18
Boeing 787-8 32 17.3
Boeing 787-9 32 17.3
Bombardier CRJ-200 31 17
Bombardier CRJ-700 (VA/V3) 31 17
Bombardier Q200 31 17.3
Bombardier Q300 31 19
Bombardier Q400 (V2) 32 17
Embraer ERJ-135 31 17.3
Embraer ERJ-145 31 17.3
Embraer EMB 170 31 18.2
Embraer EMB 175 31 18

Average pitch: 31.05
Average width: 17.47

Based on our calculations, the airline with the largest average pitch is JetBlue (33), which also has the largest average seat width (18.02). On the other end of the spectrum, the carrier with the smallest average seat pitch is Spirit (28), whereas the carrier with the smallest average seat width is a tie between Alaska and Southwest (17).

As for Senator Schumer himself, when he’s flying between Washington, D.C., and New York, he takes the shuttle — usually Delta or American, but he used to fly US Airways. However, when flying to upstate New York, the Senator prefers JetBlue — and who can blame him, the carrier has the largest average seat pitch and width. He said he doesn’t have a favorite premium cabin because he rarely flies it, and he couldn’t compare the legroom on international carriers because he rarely flights out of the country.

But, the Senator did say he’s a TPG reader — and hopefully with the tips he’s learned, he maximizes his flights between the Capitol and New York. And, hopefully for the sake of all economy travelers, there’s some seat regulation in the near future. With the added (or returned) legroom, it would make for a more comfortable ride, but at what cost? Airlines are already making record profits with the shrinking seats, and in return, travelers are seeing airfares continue to decline. But with Senator Schumer’s proposed addition to the FAA Reauthorization Bill, in what ways, if any, will that affect the way we travel? While there’s no way to truly know the answer to that, at least flyers would have their legroom back.

What do you think about Senator Schumer’s proposal?

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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