Please Please Please Don’t Regulate Airline Seat Sizes, My Wallet Thanks You!

There’s a current call for the federal government to impose ‘minimum seat standards’ on US airlines.

I’ve seen reporting on this, and largely ignored it as silly, but since it keeps showing up everywhere I look it seemed worth comment. One example is, via Paul H., this story in the Los Angeles Times.

“The shrinkage of seats and passenger space by airlines to generate higher profits while the size of passengers has substantially increased has created an intolerable crisis situation,” according to the petition. “It is threatening the health, safety and comfort of all passengers.”

Singapore Airlines long haul economy seat: head rest, foot rest, video on demand and a cup holder

It’s reporting on a petition circulated by Flyers’ Rights and forwarded to the FAA. Flyers’ Rights told everyone their miles were at risk in American Airlines’ bankruptcy. They’ve been alleged to fabricate their data.

Christopher Elliott was hawking this idea last fall. As then, there’s absolutely no evidence that current seat sizes ‘threaten health’ or ‘safety’.

  • Standard legroom on US carriers hasn’t decreased over the past 25 years. Average legroom has actually increased over that time, with the advent of extra legroom (“economy plus”-style) seats.

  • Airlines have offered 31 inch pitch (distance from seat back to seat back) for many many years and so there’s ample empirical evidence on this.

  • Spirit Airlines offers 3 fewer inches of legroom in most seats. Many airlines do the same. Those seats are considered ‘safe’ if not uncomfortable. But Spirit isn’t the primary target of the group’s criticisms, the major airlines are. (And without Spirit’s business model competing against the major airlines, fares would be higher.)

Seats may be less comfortable: the introduction of slimline seats, more seats in a row (eg 10-across seating on a 777), and overall planes are more full than they were 5 years ago. But none of that is a legroom issue per se.

American Airlines Boeing 787 economy legroom

“Main Cabin Extra” offers additional inches of legroom

As for width, an Airbus narrowbody aircraft will generally give you an 18 inch seat width now. While a Boeing aircraft, same six-across seating, will give you about 17 inches. It seems the problem here is the airframe. Should we outlaw the 737?

What level of comfort any passenger needs will vary based on personal preferences, body characteristics (shorter people don’t need as much legroom as tall people do), as well as the length of the flight.

There is this zinger, though:

During the meeting, panel member and travel expert Charles Leocha said he was troubled that the government has adopted minimum space requirements for dogs traveling on airplanes but not for humans.

I’ll be sympathetic to that argument the next time a passenger is involuntarily downgraded from economy to cargo.

We’d all love it if airlines just had to give us more space, and there were no consequences beyond that. But restricting seats on a flight raises the price of remaining seats.

The bottom line is this:

  1. There are different airlines offering different products.

  2. Most airlines themselves offer differentiated products at different price points.

Consumers can choose the level of comfortable they’re looking for, and what ithat level of comfort is worth paying for. All this petition would do is remove inexpensive choices. We’d all be forced to pay more, while we currently have a choice to pay less (and less get) on a given trip if we prefer.

American Airlines 787 Business Class Seat

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It’s nothing short of amazing that “travel bloggers” and air travel industry “thought leaders” would come down so hard against any effort to prevent airline seat shrinkage. Legroom on airlines was the same 25 years ago as today? Please – offer some evidence to back such claims!

    Or just perhaps because airplanes 25 years go weren’t as crowded in coach seating as a Tokyo train, flying was more comfortable once upon a time? It’s high time that someone speak up about the ling-standing degradation of travel on US-based airlines. Of course, that’s not the experience of those traveling in First Class!

    Kudos to Christopher Elliott and others trying to alleviate the pain of air travel.

  2. I must disagree with the contention that minimum seat standards will lead to higher prices and fewer choices. Such standards will level the playing field between airlines and insure that the price of an economy class airline seat on one airline is truly comparable to that of another airline.

    Airline fares today are set by very sophisticated computer programs, and no two passengers can be sure of paying the same price for the same seat on the same plane with the same airline. I’ve personally seen seats vary in price by as much as 50% or more. Often pricing makes little sense, with longer flights sometimes being priced less than shorter flights, prompting some passengers to engage in “hidden city ticketing”. Indeed, airlines themselves will tell you that cost and price are not related when it comes to airfares. It should also be pointed out that airlines make a substantial amount of money on cargo in the cargo bay under the passenger cabin.

    It should also be remembered that there is no magic in the supposedly lower fares (and higher fees) charged by airlines who have reduced legroom and seat sizes. Passengers pay the price for smaller seats one way or the other, if not in cash, then in smashed knees, broken laptops, increased respiratory illness, increased risk of DVT, air rage, diverted flights, etc.

    The National Association of Airline Passengers filed a formal Petition for Rule-making with the FAA to set standards guaranteeing each passenger adequate leg, hip, and shoulder room in 2014.

    “Passengers are not powerless to stop the trend to smaller seats and overcrowded airplanes.”, said Douglas Kidd, Executive Director of the National Association of Airline Passengers. “They can insist the FAA act now to set standards, and they can have a say in what those standards will be. Passenger pressure forced the FAA to set more reasonable rules on Portable Electronic Devices, and can be just as effective in making seats more comfortable.”
    Passengers can show their support for seat standards by contacting their representatives, and posting their comments and opinions directly with the FAA at the following web address:!documentDetail;D=FAA-2014-0663-0001

  3. “First, “shrinking legroom” is generally false. There wasn’t more legroom on planes 25 years ago than there is today. And consumers have options now to spend less for standard legroom (prices have fallen in real terms since then) or spend more for additional legroom. Currently the consumer has the power and choice regarding which product they get. Seat pitch regulation would take away the choice to sacrifice legroom for savings.”

    Sorry, that’s not true. Coach legroom on Boeing jets was originally 34″, you’ll pay extra to get that today. As for the option of cheap seats, dream on. These cheap seats are not sold for a uniformly low price; the price of each seat can vary day to day and even hour by hour. A few “economy minus” seats may be sold at a low price, but the rest will be sold for more – often a lot more.

  4. @Douglas Kidd Sorry, you’re wrong, but let’s test what I wrote. Show me where United Airlines, for instance, was offering 34 inch pitch in 1990? When do you think they changed?

  5. Leff couldn’t be more obviously a paid airline industry schill and hack. Putting lies and cynical arguments out there just to get some kickbacks from his airline sponsors. Like most bought and paid for polticians, just keeps spouting about market forces and vote with your wallet- how about the incessant consolidation o the airline industry over the last 20 years? What competition is really left? Sen. Schumer has also provided all the numbers on shrinking seat size in his legislative proposal, and a quick google search will turn up many other sources (but you already knew that, of course). You are all that is wrong with the ongoing ripoff the honest working people of this world are forced to endure by the few pigs feeding at the trough of corruption and gluttony.

  6. @Josh – Schumer just cribbed numbers from someone else, the same incorrect numbers a House member had used to justify a bill that failed in committee a month before he launched his own effort (hint: average seat width ain’t 16.5″). And the only check I’ve ever gotten from an airline was for clothes and incidentals when United lost my luggage.

  7. With all due respect, the author is a craven, dog-hearted, huggermugger. Plus, he’s wrong. You don’t have a choice of seat size on an airplane, any more than saying a car dealer who offers both a Rolls Royce and a Smart Car is offering you a choice. I for one, would gladly pay an extra 10% for a seat that didn’t cause physical pain within 5 minutes of sitting down. These seats are too narrow, hard, and are actually concave where your back is, instead of the proper convex shape. And BTW, I’m a hulking giant of 5’9″ tall and 172 pounds. If I can’t sit in those seats, I can’t imagine how larger people must feel.

  8. Where do you get paying 10% more from?

    The proposed SEAT ACT would require more seat width, outlawing the 6-across Boeing 737. Eliminating the 6th seat would mean a break-even price increase over 16%.

    Then they mandate more legroom. Let’s say you could meet new legroom standards removing 3 rows of coach, you’re looking at about another 9% there.

    Here’s the thing though you aren’t just raising fares 25% you’re losing some routes which become uneconomic. Or losing some flight frequencies. And there aren’t as many empty/incremental seats left so while AVERAGE fares may go up 25% the cheap fares are completely eliminated, don’t think it’s $300 transcons that get more expensive, it’s $700 transcons that get more expensive..

  9. Regulating seat size won’t outlaw the 737, 5 across seating has been a manufacturer supported configuration since the plane was first introduced.

    The objections to regulating seat size today are the same ones made 200 years ago when Congress passed the passenger act of 1819, regulating conditions on passenger ships.

    “Greed begets greed and it was not long before masters and ship’s agents, as well as ship-owners, were cramming their vessels to the limit with human cargo, without much concern as to what happened to the miserable passengers when storms and contrary winds lengthened voyages and caused shortages of both food and water.” Sound familiar?

    How much, if any prices might rise remains to be seen. Airlines have very sophisticated computer programs to help them charge whatever the market will bear, with or without regulating seat size. I’ve seen prices on the same flight for the same day vary by more than 100% depending on when the ticket is bought. While some flights are full (thanks to the airlines exercising capacity discipline) not all are, and we can only guess at what might happen to prices and load factors. One thing’s for sure, however. Flights will be a lot more comfortable for all involved.

  10. My comment about paying 10% more was just a guess. I see your point concerning 16% fewer seats on a 737, and stand corrected, although Mr Kidd did make a good point concerning airline pricing. The scenario I would love to see is a choice of something between First Class and cattle class. An extra inch or two in width and pitch, with a bit of strategic padding, and maybe even effective head bolsters would work wonders on a flight of more than 3 hours. So I stand corrected. I would gladly pay an extra 16.7% on a 737 for a decent seat. I realize a few airlines have had a few mid-range seats, and you can also try to sit behind a bulkhead, but the former seem to be gone, while the latter still has a crappy narrow seat. Anyway, it seems like you may be in the minority on this Mr. Leff.

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