Passengers have a lot to say about shrinking airplane seats

(CNN) – High-flyer Rick Hubbard spends a lot of time squeezing into airplane seats and has noticed that they’re getting tighter.

“It’s either that or I’m getting bigger, but I don’t think so,” Hubbard told CNN recently about a baggage claim. “I can’t imagine the seats or the aisles being any smaller than they are today.”

The reduction of personal space in the sky is not imaginary: experts say airline seats shrink over the years, while Americans grew up.

Airlines are balancing passenger demand for affordable flights and more legroom. Federal regulators, meanwhile, have been scrambling to prevent a cabin so cramped that it prevents rapid emergency evacuation.

“The message so far has been how uncomfortable you are with the airline,” said Peter Goelz, a CNN security analyst and former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Under pressure from Congress and passengers, the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating whether the seats are too cramped for a quick evacuation. Federal standards require the plane to be evacuated within 90 seconds after it comes to rest in an emergency, and a 2018 law requires the agency to decide on minimum safe seat sizes.

Flood of opinions

He called for “seats … to be placed further apart so people have plenty of legroom and your knees don’t touch or pile up on the seat in front of you” in comments to federal officials.

The comment period closed on November 1. The FAA has not said whether it will act on the response.

In official comments to the FAA, groups representing major U.S. airlines — American Airlines and the International Air Transport Association — urged the agency to focus on safety, “And not comfort or convenience.”

Also narrow for shorter people

They don’t look so bad when they’re empty, but when passengers start filling those seats, it can often become uncomfortable.


Paul Hudson, president of passenger advocacy group FlyersRights, says legroom isn’t just for taller passengers. Short people can also be uncomfortable, he says, citing data submitted to the FAA linking health risks such as blood clots to cramped conditions.

“They define safety narrowly as if it has anything to do with evacuation speed,” he told CNN.

“But they ignore the health risks, especially blood clots, which are known to increase dramatically when you’re in an enclosed space for more than two or three hours. They completely ignore the forced intrusion you now have on your neighbor.”

Hudson says that since the FAA developed evacuation standards in 1967, the average American is about 30 pounds heavier and an inch or two taller. Airline seats, however, are smaller.

Airline seats are “the only area we know of where the public is invited to sit in seats that are actually smaller. Everything else — stadium seats, theater seats, automobile seats — have all gotten bigger,” Hudson explains.

FlyersRights proposed that the FAA requires 32 inches of pitch, typically measured from seat to back, plus more width. He says these dimensions will fit more than 90% of Americans.

Examining the size of the seat

In 2019, the FAA loaded people into an airplane cabin to test evacuation speeds with different legs.

Stacey Zinke-McKee of the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute told CNN at the time that the study was needed “to first determine if it’s a safety issue, if there is a safety concern.”

The study concluded that “currently flying seats … can accommodate and not obstruct the departures of 99% of the American population.”

But U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, the Tennessee Democrat who wrote the legislation that prompted the FAA’s action, called the tests “as flawed as can be.”

“They had no one under 18, no one over 60, no one with a disability, no walker, no dog that can see anyone, no dog, no luggage,” he said.

“Public safety should come first, and it doesn’t,” Cohen said.

The FAA and the Department of Transportation declined CNN’s request for an interview.

The airline’s view

Airlines to the Americas has said that its members make safety a “top priority”.

“Airlines continue to invest in numerous innovative technologies to maximize personal space in the cabin while maintaining the level of comfort passengers expect,” the group said in a statement.

He told the FAA that the slimmer, redesigned seats mean that “despite the reduced seat space, in most cases passengers still have the same or nearly equivalent space, and in some cases more leg and knee room.”

An airline recently announced that it is ordering planes with larger seats. Spirit Airlines said the row on its new Airbus plane features “innovative curved seat designs” that unlock space at knee level – about two more inches.

The seats will also be wider. How much wider? Half an inch.

Image above: (Adobe Stock)