The FAA Is Investigating Shrinking Airplane Seats

If you think they've been getting smaller, you're right

July 31, 2017 9:00 am

Are you on a plane?

Are you miserable? Are you getting unhappily intimate with the dude in the middle seat? Is your elbow lodged between your kidney and your small intestine? Are your knees touching your chin? 

There’s a reason for that. That reason, obviously, is greed. Mo’ seats, mo’ passengers. Mo’ passengers, mo’ money — which means airlines want planes with as many seats as possible. But a plane’s volume won’t change much, so the only way to get more seats into that space is by making the seats smaller (or by taking them out altogether and making passengers stand — a setup that looks unlikely to happen, except in airline CEOs’ dreams).

That means the only way to increase X is to make those seats as tiny as possible, adding extra rows wherever possible and additional seats-per-row where necessary. Four incredible statistics, shared by the New York Times last year in its analysis of a bill that would have “set minimum seat size standards for commercial airlines”:

  • Seat width has decreased from around 18 inches pre-deregulation to 16
  • Seat pitch has decreased from 35 inches to 31
  • The average American man has increased by 30 pounds
  • The average American woman has increased by 26 pounds 

This, obviously, is one of the reasons people are so miserable when they fly. 

Now the Federal Aviation Administration will need to review those seat sizes, thanks to a ruling from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2015, the advocacy group Flyers Rights petitioned the FAA to review seat size; after it demurred, Flyers Rights went to court. Flyers Rights’ position is that small seat sizes aren’t just a nuisance but a health concern, as restricted movement can lead to problems like deep vein thrombosis. 

While we await that review, claustrophobic passengers will want to favor generous (well, generous-ish) airlines — like JetBlue, which usually leads its competitors in terms of legroom. 


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