SEAT ACT: Top Senators Sponsoring Bill to Outlaw Low Cost Carriers, Raise Airfares

Several Members of Congress introduced the SEAT Act bill yesterday to outlaw the ultra-low cost airlines like Spirit and Allegiant and raise airfares.

That’s not how they’ll spin it, but that’s exactly what the Seat Egress in Air Travel Act — aka the “SEAT Act” (ha ha) — would do.

And by raising the cost of airfare, that pushes more people to drive instead of fly (especially true for short haul trips, where legroom may be even less of an issue ironically enough). But since air travel is far safer than car trips, it would mean more highway deaths. That’s what’s known as statistical murder.

United Boeing 777-300ER Economy

Democratic Representatives Cohen and Senators Chuck Schumer, Diane Feinstein, Bob Menendez, Richard Blumenthal, and Ed Markey along with lone Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger know that:

  • This bill isn’t likely going anywhere, not only is this a Democrat bill in a Republican-controlled Congress, it would have to pass through the House Transportation Committee chaired by the Representative of airline lobbying group Airlines for America.

  • So it doesn’t matter that this is terrible policy.

  • But it makes good politics, because people want better flying experiences without having to pay more.

They’re counting on mood affiliation, and an inability to think about consequences by people who simply dislike airlines, to turn this into a populist political issue.

American Airlines Boeing 787 Economy Legroom

These members of Congress don’t even have their facts straight though. They complain,

The average distance between rows of seats has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has also shrunk from 18 inches to about 16 ½.

That is absolutely false.

  1. Legroom was once 34 inches on empty planes with regulated high fares but most Americans don’t have the experience of that.

  2. Average legroom hasn’t decreased over the past 20 years. In fact with the introduction of extra legroom economy seats, average legroom in the economy cabin has increased.

  3. Average seat width is simply not 16.5 inches in economy today. These members of Congress are entitled to their opinion, but not their own facts.

    Boeing narrowbodies have an average seat width in economy of ~ 17 inches and Airbus narrowbodies an average seat width of ~ 18 inches.

    It seems the problem here is the airframe. Should we outlaw the 737?

United Airlines Economy

Congressman Cohen warns, “doctors have warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who do not move their legs enough during longer flights. The safety and health of passengers must come before airline profits.” However:

  • There’s not clear scientific linkage to specific amounts of legroom and medical problems.

  • Even if there were, they claim it’s an issue for longer flights but the law wouldn’t be restricted to long haul aircraft.

  • They’re wishing for a world of fewer seats, where prices presumably stay the same. But the law doesn’t require this, and there’s no reason to think that’s what would happen.

On the contrary although the law doesn’t specify what standards would apply, the sponsors make clear that 31 inches from seat back to seat back is not enough (if US legal jurisdiction extended to Europe, they’d outlaw British Airways intra-European business class).

British Airways Club Europe

Under this law airlines offering less legroom than the 31 inches complained about — largely Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant — would no longer be able to do so.

More seats on a plane means a lower cost per seat (since most costs to fly a plane are fixed). You’ll either have to see higher fares, or the elimination of flights and routes.

Fewer flights, fewer routes, especially operated by low cost carriers means an end to pricing pressure on the country’s major airlines. Without competition from Spirit, American Airlines and Delta fares wouldn’t be what they are today.

What level of comfort any passenger needs will vary based on personal preferences, body characteristics, as well as the length of the flight. The SEAT Act would criminalize the least expensive options, so all we’re left with is:

  • Planes with fewer seats
  • A higher cost per seat
  • Higher fares

Today consumers can choose the level of comfortable they’re looking for, and what level of comfort is worth paying for. The SEAT Act would eliminate the inexpensive choices, so everyone that can still afford to fly gets more at a higher price.

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. “More seats on a plane means a lower cost per seat (since most costs to fly a plane are fixed). You’ll either have to see higher fares, or the elimination of flights and routes.”

    Only if a flight is fully loaded.

  2. Another sensationalistic, misleading headline for yet another anti-consumer-friendly regulation story under the guise of being consumer-friendly.

    While regulation of this nature has no future under the current House, Senate and White House’s single-party rule, this kind of regulation wouldn’t outlaw low cost carriers and it wouldn’t even necessarily lead to an increase in airfares. Demand isn’t inelastic, at least not when speaking of the most price-sensitive consumer segments.

  3. Agreed, this is just politics. Nothing they love more than to cast profits and corporations as the villains in their little made up stories. Greedy bankers were to blame for the financial crisis. Never mind that we couldn’t prove any of them actually broke any laws…and never mind the fact that we passed the Fair housing act that forced banks to make housing loans to people who couldn’t pay them back.

  4. Is this really how Congress will “spin it”, or is it how you’ve spun it to create a click-bait headline?

  5. Hi Gary,

    Overall, I agree with your analysis. Adding more regulation that increases cost per seat / limits revenue per mile by removing seats will likely make flying a less accessible and appealing option at the lower end of the spectrum.

    I disagree, however, with the broad statement that passengers can simply “choose the level of comfort” they are willing to pay for. I am 6’3″, so tall, but not gargantuan in average American terms. On domestic flights on most any airline, it has reached a point where I am compelled to pay for extra legroom or face one and / or two scenarios: 1) my knees are jammed into the back of the seat in front of me, assuming they even fit at all, which is becoming increasingly rare, 2) I have to sit in a single position to ensure first that I fit and seconds that I don’t sirens the whole flight disturbing the passenger in front. So in the event I do fit, my next few days are spent recovering from back and leg pain.

    So for me and those like me, there is either no choice, or barely a choice. Through no fault of my own, my airfare is generally always $25-200 more expensive reach way simply so I can fit. Often, it’s even more, as I have to check a bag knowing there is no space for me to keep a bag under my seat.

    All that said, it’s hard for me to say it’s there government’s job to fix that. But I do think we are reaching a point in domestic routes on certain airplanes where pitch is becoming untenable, and airlines, or the government, need to figure out an innovative way to accommodate taller passengers. Maybe it’s a voucher, a new kind of seat, seat assignment based on hip to knee length, etc.

    I would be curious to know, while you say average pitch has increased in economy with the introduction of extra legroom seats, what has been the trend for the economy cabin when you take out extra legroom seats that require a fee?


  6. @tim this is WHAT WOULD HAPPEN if the new law were enacted.

    @alex – you can choose to PAY FOR the legroom you want, but this law would take away the choice of less legroom and leave you only the more expensive option that you say is barely a choice

  7. @alex

    Tall people on average get advantages in job interviews and make more than shorter people. So consider it karma!

  8. While overall, your analysis is probably correct, you do your argument a disservice when you frame YOUR facts in a way that helps YOUR argument. Why would you take the average seat pitch now (that includes E and E+) and compare it to E only? Why not compare it E to E? That is clearly what the congressman were insinuating. Also, you say seat width is definitely not 16.5″. Then say it is ~17″. I think you’re right, that the average seat width is not 16.5 (b/c some are ~18″ as you say…thus bringing the average up). But why not give us the exact figure instead of an “~”? What is ~17″? Is it 16.51″ and you’ve rounded up? ~17″ stretches from 16.51-17.49″. Go ahead and sh*t on their claim, but try to provide more specific relevant facts.

    Again though, the overall sentiment is probably correct. More regulation here will drive prices up thereby excluding people from the market. Gov’t regulation has its place, but probably not in this situation. Shame on these Dems for wasting valuable gov’t time (i.e. tax dollars) on this issue. There are PLENTY of more important things to worry about with the current orange marmalade d’bag in office.

  9. Also, as you love to sh*t on the TSA, would love to hear your thoughts on Drumpf’s budget that would cut a considerable chunk of their budget away. You’re argument usually lies in that their should be a regulatory body separate from the actual TSA which is perfectly reasonable, but you also decry the TSA asking for more $. So is what Drumpf suggests perfectly reasonable?

  10. Alex, and through no fault of my own, you would expect me to pay more for my seat, because you need extra space. There are advantages and disadvantages to being different heights. Maybe we should make it a law that grocery shelves only go to a certain height, so that due to no fault of their own, shorter people can still reach everything. Oh, and those overhead bins on planes should be lowered as well so shorter people can get to them without risk of reaching and injuring themselves.

    Better make the weight restrictions on carry on lower as well, so smaller people don’t injure themselves. Some of these people are compelled to put their luggage through check in because it is too heavy for them to lug through the airport. The audacity that everyone isn’t the same size. Lets make a law for that too. Genetic engineering so we are all the same size and people can stop whining about the differences. Let’s make us all the same gender too. The blissfull Democratic Nirvana where everyone is equal.

  11. You know I actually do kinda hate 737’s…

    Fixed cost per flight are true except for fuel if weight is more for a more dense cabin, number of FA’s needed per passenger count and potentially insurance premiums if policy is based on per passenger seat / flight flown. So it is true that there is more profit for tighter seating. I guess I compare this all to small cars. I don’t want to sit in the backseat of a Ford Focus (or any car that size) and it’s even worse if I have to sit in a small car backseat with 2 other people. It is a safety concern in my opinion. I also think a plane with seat rows too tight results in a slower evacuation time. On the other hand I really don’t want a bunch of Democrats and a RINO from Memphis regulating this issue.

    All that being said I do think it is safer to fly than drive in many areas like between Austin and Dallas for example 🙂

  12. In this blissful state where humans are mistreated, let’s allow airlines to charge by weight (currently prohibited by regulation) so that fatso’s like Gary are charged more than the average person.

    Why should a petite lady like me subsidize the cost of flying around Gary’s lard?

    That used to be called human compassion and being all equal in front of God, but in the post-truth era where people are making stuff out it doesn’t apply.

    Gary, this whole tirade is awful. Without regulation we would still have child labor (goods are more expensive without them), we would be working in unheated and unsafe factories and offices (goods are more expensive when workers have heating and safe buildings), homes that burn down (houses are more expensive when they have to meet fire code) and so on. The “but we have a choice” argument has been proven to be highly fallacious — see factories in Bangladesh and how many people die in old houses that have not been upgraded to meet code.

  13. @gary,

    Until you start wedging your fat-filled ass into economy for every single one of your flights, your opinion on this issue doesn’t matter even one tiny bit.

  14. @Flying Boat, and others with the same argument

    You should be made to sit in a seat that is as small and tight relative to YOUR dimensions as tall people like me do presently.

    Just like Whites know nothing about the minority experience, Shorts have no idea how ridiculously hard 28″-31″ pitch is for Talls.

    Many of us develop more empathy as we mature and age.

    Unfortunately not enough people do. You folks are freakin S-E-L-F-I-S-H A-H-O-L-E-S

  15. @GLeff, Your point seems to be that people have as much room on planes today as they have had for a very long time. If so, I disagree because that is not my perception (perception is also fact) and because of the widely used tactic of “densification” (a consultant term if I ever heard one). That is taking an existing airframe and adding more seats without increasing the size of the airframe or adding additional exits for that matter. It seems obvious that densification results in less room per passenger.

    Using slimline seats and smaller lavs can make room for another row of seats in some cases but even that decreases passenger comfort. I also think that the conclusion that increasing seat room must lead to higher prices or even lower revenue is too simplistic. Airlines have options other than raising ticket prices to maintain profitability.

    As far as the proposed legislation, I agree that it is going nowhere. I’d rather see Congress establish some parameters on the way airlines administer their ff programs. Or maybe the concept of good faith and fair dealing too radical to bring up in the current political climate where laissez faire capitalism rules.

  16. “Empathy” misses the point. You don’t just get to wave a magic wand and make seats bigger at no cost. If that worked, an even better policy would be “everyone gets bigger seats for the same price AND A PONY.”

    This post isn’t about my opinion about what’s good (I want more for the same or less money just like anyone else), it’s about what consequences would happen as a result of this law. And they would be bad for consumers.

    And once you start talking about child labor you have to realize your argument’s gone off the rails, because it has nothing whatsoever to do with modern air travel.

  17. @Ben the reason I’m talking about average seat pitch is because it’s a direct response to an inaccurate claim. You can respond with a more reasonable claim and then we can agree and use that as a basis for discussion.

  18. @FlyingBoat, I pay more for my ticket because of overweight passengers so maybe it’s not so bad if you pay more for your ticket because Alex is 6’3″. After all, people can control their weight but as far as I know, they can’t shrink themselves.

  19. @Gary — Why are you using fake pictures in this post? The ACTUAL inside of United’s new planes is here: (HT Runwaygirl) Check out what real life (without Photoshop or seat-back screens that United isn’t installing anymore) looks like.

    @Gary — the consequences would be GREAT for consumers. It’s not all down to price. And driving is safer than flying on a per-trip basis — someone driving 2 hours takes on less risk than someone flying 2 hours.

  20. Is there an objective source for comprehensive seat measurement averages? And do any of the foregoing stats cited include regional aircraft?

  21. @john – we are in a laissez-faire capitalism era? How much have you read about the President or Steve Bannon’s views? They are protectionists and/or state capitalists, depending upon how far you want to take their logic. They are NOT laissez-faire capitalists, nor are the overwhelming majority of politicians, Republican or Democrat. They all support entitlement spending, pork, a large federal government, and more. While this isn’t the polar opposite of capitalism, it certainly isn’t laissez-faire.

    I get it, you don’t agree with some of their ideologies…but don’t misrepresent them and create a strawman.

  22. Wow…what a bunch of mean people commenting here! Do you talk to your mothers like that?

  23. It’s difficult for me to reconcile Joker’s comments about empathy with his language…

  24. Without GOP backing and a huge pending legislative agenda, these bills have no hope of even getting a hearing, let alone get a vote in committee.

  25. Last month I enjoyed two nearly-empty A320s featuring $19 o/w introductory fares on JetBlue’s new LGB-SJC route. I sure would miss those $19 introductory fares.

    In 2017 thus far most economy seats appear to be the cheapest in years. Transcon bargains galore, and those $350 r/t fares to Europe are a steal.

  26. @100 lbs Amy — these are real photos taken from the inside of United’s 777-300ER. Your link is to a domestic-configured 777-200. That is a different aircraft in a different configuration.

  27. @Dude, Here is a widely accepted definition of the theory of laissez-faire capitalism: “French for ‘leave alone’, laissez-faire is an economic theory that became popular in the 18th century. The driving idea behind laissez-faire as a theory was that the less the government is involved in free market capitalism, the better off business will be, and then by extension society as a whole.” That fits the general view of the reactionaries in the regulation-hating Republican Party to a T.

  28. Seat sizes and pitch are not issues only for ultra-low cost airlines. I think this is a faux justification for forcing fares up, or other responses from those airlines, that in broadly not in the public interest.
    If you are above or below the average height you will/should know which seating is appropriate for you, or you will at least do the research before you book the cheapest ticket. Unfortunately for the tallest people, that may be a F seat domestically at a higher cost, but you will be having a better travel experience overall than the shorties in Row 43! There are heaps of midgets who can only dream of having your problems!
    Oh, and shame on the Democrats for taking the low road and flirting with despicable populism! That’s the Orange Republican schtick, and probably copywrited to boot!

  29. I am totally okay with a slight fare increase if it means being able to fit into the seat. Flying is ungodly uncomfortable these days. Now if only they would get rid of the TSA…

  30. This has dubious facts. “Average legroom has increased” — sorry but that is only true if you take into account the fact that in first and business class it has increased hugely, and average that out with the dramatic squashing of humans in economy class (where most people fly).
    I wonder what happens in an otherwise survivable plane crash when people are crammed in like sardines … I am only 5’7″ and sometimes my knees now touch the seat in front of me when flying. That’s ridiculous. I also just “love” eating with my head touching the seat in front of me and having someone’s hair in my face … the airlines have gotten greedy and it’s not just the cheap flight airlines that have reduced economy legroom. Enough is enough.

  31. “The airlines have gotten greedy”………this, from the same people that for years, didn’t care if the airlines lost money, hand over fist, as long as they could have their cheap fares. Now, when the airlines are finally making money, they’re being “greedy”.

  32. I remember when it was a pleasure to fly, and no, I could never afford anything more than the economy fare. But, the last time a flew in an airplane I was so crowded in that I couldn’t even move to the ails without scooting from seat to seat. And if the passenger in front of me had his seat reclined there was not enough room to have my tray open in front of me. No I am not fat, at 5-10 and 165 lbs I should fit comfortably like I used to. I won’t even consider flying anywhere now. I’m even thinking of taking a boat next time I go to Europe. I’d trade a few more hours travel time to Europe if you would put me in a spacious low mpg prop job so I can move around a bit.

  33. Wrong. First of all, one row of seats, i.e., 6 seats costs maybe $2,000 on the margin, probably less. The airlines can, and do, make this up by carrying more cargo, which pays more per pound than people. We are really talking about prices on the margins. In the alternative, there are 150 or so seats on a flight. Raising the prices $10 to $15 per seat would make up the difference. Or, if the airline wanted to add a class, they could raise it $25 per seat. But this does not account for the width problem. Instead of 3-3 seating, 3-2 seating would be possible.

    So, how about having 1. First class; 2. Business class; 3. Economy (3-2 seating with more legroom); and 4) steerage. With Economy being slightly more than steerage. One of the problems is that businesses (including the government) might balk at paying the economy rate, when steerage is available. On the other hand, by calling it steerage, the airlines might be able to persuade their business customers that it is not a great option.

  34. “the consequences would be GREAT for consumers. It’s not all down to price.”

    But for SOME consumers it IS all down to price. For some it’s about comfort, and for some, their special physical circumstances raise other considerations. The problem comes when the government looks at all these competing consumer segments, with their differing priorities, and picks the tall people as the winners, forcing everyone else into one choice based on the preferences and priorities of one special interest group.

    Yes, Alex, that’s what you are in this case, a special interest group. Your height has its benefits and its liabilities, Studies have shown that, all other attributes being equal, a 5’10” man would need to make $350,000 more per year to have the same dating market value as you. Maybe you’d like to contemplate some government mandated way to erase that advantage differential.

    Some people need to read “Harrison Bergeron.”

  35. “I remember when it was a pleasure to fly?

    If you have nostalgia for air travel in the past, when smoking was allowed on flights, there’s something wrong with you, or you’re a smoker. Flying is a means to an end – the pleasure lies in the destination. Air travel is available to far more people than it was back in the day. That broader availability doesn’t come without tradeoffs. Welcome to the real world, where everything is a tradeoff.

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