Has Tighter Legroom in Coach Made Flights Unsafe?

Sep 25, 2017

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Flying coach is cramped. It’s crowded. Could it also kill you, if you had to evacuate an airplane with one of today’s tighter seat pitches?

It sounds dramatic, but that’s the question before a US Court of Appeals judge in Washington, DC after a passenger-advocacy group petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration for new rules around safety and seat size in coach.

At issue: FAA-mandated tests that determine whether airplane passengers can evacuate safely in an emergency. The FAA says the rules work. But DC-based Flyers’ Rights contends that the regulations no longer fly. Seats on airplanes are shrinking, they say, just as the people in them are expanding.

“The rationale for our lawsuit is that people are getting bigger and older. But seats on planes are contracting,” Paul Hudson, Flyers Rights’ executive director, told The Points Guy. “The safety regimen hasn’t kept up.”

Evacuations take place under stressful, sometimes terrifying conditions. They often occur in low-light conditions, with risks of fire, flooding, and injury. No matter how even-tempered the crew, passengers may panic.  Flyers Rights contends that smaller seats and crowded cabins make safe evacuations even more challenging.

The industry standard for safe evacuation is 90 seconds, the time on which the FAA bases its tests. Hudson says that’s where problems start.  “First, it’s a safety issue. If you can’t get out within a short period of time, there’s a good chance you’ll get overcome by smoke, fire, or water. These regulations have been around since the 1950s, and the FAA lets airlines use ‘analysis’ or partial demonstrations. There’s no test for actual compliance.”

Airlines are squeezing more and more seats into the economy cabin, which results in less room for everybody.

For the industry, the issue’s sensitive. The Association of Flight Attendants, the profession’s largest labor union, did not respond to interview requests; neither did the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations. Several airline-safety experts declined comment as well.

But to one pilot we reached, the Flyers Rights lawsuit makes sense. “The FAA is a bureaucracy, which moves at a bureaucracy’s pace, so I wouldn’t be surprised if several areas were outdated,” said Eric Auxier, an A321 captain for a major US airline who writes on aviation. “In fact, the ‘standard human,’ according to the FAA, still stands at 170 lbs—something that hasn’t been changed in decades. Of course, this is an aggregate average for anything from young teen to linebacker. However, I certainly agree that humans are expanding while seats are shrinking.”

We asked Captain Auxier if he felt he felt evacuations could still happen quickly and safely, considering the concerns raised by Flyers Rights.  His response was not exactly a resounding endorsement of the FAA’s rules.

“Regardless of an airline’s desire to shrink the seat, there are limits, and the limits are rapidly approaching,” he said. “Again, as long as the configuration can be demonstrated to be safely evacuated according to FAA parameters, then it would be deemed ‘airworthy.’ As a captain, I would have to be satisfied with that.”

To get some insight into what evacuation tests look like, TPG reached out to Boeing; while spokesman Paul Bergman wouldn’t discuss details, he did explain that Boeing tests evacuation capability of its airplanes using a minimum seat pitch (or distance between seats) of 28 inches and the maximum number of passengers, “which is significantly higher than what airlines typically use in their operations. This may be done by conducting a full-scale evacuation demonstrations, or it may be done by a combination of testing and analysis.”

Airlines can maximize pitch by installing “slimline” seats which are much less padded than older seats.

FAA spokesperson Laura Brown said the agency stands by its rules. “The FAA’s primary safety concern about aircraft seating is whether the plane can be evacuated safely in an emergency, and the agency considers seat pitch (“legroom”) in testing and assessing the safe evacuation of commercial passenger aircraft,” an emailed statement said.  “Full-scale evacuation demonstrations are conducted with whatever seat pitch is needed to accommodate the maximum passenger capacity. The seat pitch is usually 30 inches or less. Airplane manufacturers have demonstrated full-scale emergency evacuation of airplanes with seat pitches as low as 28 inches. In no case did the seat pitch have an effect on the outcome of the test.”

Brown also contradicted the Flyers’ Rights claim that seat size might affect the safe and swift evacuation of a plane in distress. “An airplane’s actual maximum passenger capacity is determined by the full-scale emergency evacuation demonstration, or a combination of demonstration testing and analysis,” she said. “There is no FAA regulation for minimum seat spacing, because seat spacing has been demonstrated to not be a limiting factor in evacuation speed. The limiting factors are the emergency exits (size, number and location), aisle width leading to the exits, and escape slide performance.”

Flyers’ Rights Hudson scoffed. “That’s been their position.  But studies and facts don’t support it,” he said. “And the court found in great detail, in a 3-0 decision, that evidence for that statement is inadequate. The court agreed with another study, which found that the biggest factor is body size. Of course, the FAA doesn’t mention it.”

Aside from safety concerns, passenger health and comfort is also at stake, said Hudson. “If you’re confined in small space for more than three hours, the chance of developing blood clots goes way up,” he said. “Studies we cited in our petition deal with that.” As for comfort, Hudson said, “put that in quotation marks. The FAA and DOT disclaim any responsibility for it.”

What can travelers do? Not much except vote with their feet, said Auxier, the airline pilot. “Seats may shrink, but only to a point. The ultimate authority, in the end, is the consumer,” he said. “It is they who must be willing to pay for the seats in question. If airline X pushes the size limit too far, the consumers have every right to migrate to airline Y.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the quote in the last paragraph to Hudson, not Auxier. The article has been updated.

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