Stuck With The Airline Seats That You’ve Got: FAA Won’t Have To Mandate Seat Size, Legroom

Consumer advocates have pushed for the federal government to mandate more seat width and legroom for passengers. The Department of Transportation can’t do this by fiat, but they’d hoped to argue that airlines pack to many people into planes and that this is unsafe; that if a plane needed to evacuate it couldn’t do so quickly enough (90 second standard).

Of course the biggest reason why it takes awhile to evacuate is that passengers grab for their belongings and take selfies on the way out! Some people argue for overhead bins that lock in the event of an evacuation, but that would likely cause even more delays as passengers struggle with the bins trying to get them open.

In 2018 Congress gave the FAA one year to establish minimum seat dimensions for safety. Like many agencies, and many such requirements, this has not been met. The FAA has not determined that current practice poses any risk to safety, though critics question their methodology in drawing this conclusion.

Courts Won’t Require The FAA To Set Minimum Seat Standards

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled for the FAA suggesting critics have not been able to show with “clear and indisputable” evidence that current seating is dangerous.

In the court’s opinion,

[M]any airline seats are uncomfortably small. That is why some passengers pay for wider seats and extra legroom. But it is not ‘clear and indisputable’ that airline seats have become dangerously small.

Unless they are dangerously small, seat-size regulations are not ‘necessary for the safety of passengers.

What Would FAA Seat Standards Actually Do?

An FAA standard might,

  • Enforce the status quo saying airlines couldn’t densify seating further, but that would simply allow American, Delta and United to offer seats as tight as Spirit and Frontier. In other words, it would accomplish little for comfort (using safety as a back door to regulate).

  • Require more than current minimums for instance requiring 30 inches of pitch, like American, Delta and United offer in some seats, which is more than Spirit and Frontier provide.

In other words, if seat size standards have any teeth, they would effectively outlaw Spirit and Frontier from competing against the major airlines. That would mean higher prices, without making air travel more comfortable for most.

How To Get The Choice For A Better Inflight Experience

You can obviously choose from the different products offered today. JetBlue and Southwest are marginally better in coach than standard seats offered by the other big airlines.

If what you want is different products from airlines, you should favor legalizing competition not mandating the product that you want (which isn’t going to get you what you want anyway).

  • Airlines are protected. Nearly every commercial airport in the United States is owned by a local government, and the desirable ones to fly to are often heavily influenced by a single airline. Atlanta even prevents a new airport from being built because Delta doesn’t want competition, and they’ve made life hard on new airlines entering the market in terms of facilities and gates. They enter into long-term leases with incumbents and even kick back concessions revenue to them. Would you believe most of the pandemic subsidies that the DFW airport received were rebated to American Airlines?

    That’s without even getting into the issue of slots at congested airports, where limited rights to takeoff and land were gifts from the government to incumbent airlines that keep out new competitors. Instead of slots we should do congestion pricing, or at a minimum not make slots a free and perpetual property right.

  • Air travel is sold on schedule and price. Since that’s what is presented to customers, there’s little room to compete along other margins. I’ve seen no innovation in helping passengers pick the best flights that match their actual preferences in twenty years. Google was supposed to disrupt this but never really did. And now the government plans to mandate uniformity in what information is displayed to customers when searching air travel and none of it is about the on board experience.

  • Can’t just start a new airline. That’s why new entrants buy up existing operating certificates from nearly-defunct carriers, and the number of airlines approved by the government actually stays the same.

    Avelo Airlines, for instance, bought Xtra Airways, a shell of a carrier that had already sold off its fleet – save for one ancient Boeing 737-400 so it could retain its FAA Part 121 Regularly Scheduled Air Carrier certification.

  • And you can’t bring in experienced operators from overseas. A diversity of business models could come from airlines that already offer a diversity of business models, from Ryanair to Singapore Airlines and Emirates, but protectionist laws prevent foreign control of airlines operating in the U.S. – the limited number of incumbent airlines have the domestic market to carve up for themselves.

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. We live in a world filled with conundrums. Regarding aviation, seats get smaller, but passengers get bigger. If we can’t regulate the size of the seat, that is the “sign from God” that people shouldn’t be so fat!

  2. I am an LLBBT* and feel discriminated against and body shamed by Airlines and fellow travelers. My 6” 5” body frame is the way I am. Who should I demand be canceled? Which laws will give me minority protection? Which airlines will run marketing campaigns celebrating the diversity of their passengers bodies? Which carriers will provide me with extra legroom to reduce risk of DVT, swollen legs and cramps when angled into my seat with my legs at 45 degrees?

    *Long Legged Big Body Traveler

  3. I call BS on this judgement by the court. Want proof? Fill a 737MAX with random members of congress and see if they can exit the plane the first time in real life conditions.

  4. The US federal court system judges have a heavy pro-corporation bias. As they typically default to being apologists for the powerful corporate interests, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they would back the airlines and the regulatory institutions which the industry has captured.

  5. Perhaps we should let the Department of Agriculture set the seat dimensions. Animals going to slaughter have more room and rights than airline passengers.

  6. Not everyone know about airlines. Economy seat size should be displayed along with the price for consumer protection

  7. Court of Appears? Really? Do y’all proofread before publication? Or like another typo, it is to tough? The true point here is that the errors are so basic as to be distracting, and definitely harm the credibility of any given article, plus the overall publication. Generally, I really enjoy the VFTW. I doubt I can trust the content in this article, though.

  8. @Michael C – “Do y’all proofread before publication?”

    There is no y’all, just me, I don’t have an editor sorry.

  9. I’d argue it is actually easier to evacuate from Spirit and Frontier’s slimline seats than the big 3’s bulky ones, even with the reduced pitch.

    Not to mention there are fewer
    carry-ons for people to try and
    grab on their way out.

  10. Any passenger taller than 6’2” should be assured *by law* of a seat with at least 34” pitch. Why doesn’t the ADA or similar legislation assure that a tall person is accommodated in a seat that won’t injure them? Why should they have to pay more than everyone else so they are not injured when traveling? It is not their fault they are tall. Yes, some airlines “try” to give them a legroom seat but more and more they don’t. They treat tall people with a “pay up or shut up” attitude when the passenger simply needs the legroom to actually fit in the row.

  11. Every 15 or 20 years we spend billions rescuing airlines from some crisis or other. That’s fine, but in exchange we should get something, and that something should be seat dimensions that simply match those used in the late 90’s. Hardly luxury or anything, just a basic standard.

  12. If you want more legroom like I do, BUY IT.

    I constantly here people on narrow body aircraft saying the seats are smaller. Wrong! It’s standard 6 seats across as always. it’s your rear that’s bigger

  13. You shouldn’t have someone on top of you. Sometimes these planes lose control and they jump up and down and swing side to side that could cause an altercation. All the problems that Airlines been having with clients is because the seats are too small and people don’t fit. They have caused his problems all by themselves, and God loves his children all different sizes for the one that made the comment which she knows who she is. She must be working for the airlines. It’s very dangerous to have someone on top of you? Specially, a person that gets panic attacks. Maybe the judge her being paid off we all know the system so corrupt but I agree that those seats be should be bigger. and the crazy thing is they charge you more money and give you smallest spaces. Maybe you have to sit the judge right in the middle of someone put somebody big on the right and put somebody back on the left and then he could say his opinion when he’s gone through it, it’s just ridiculous that the airlines are no longer considered luxury that consider funeral boxes. or more like a cockroach Box. I remember back in the days how luxurious it was to fly

  14. Too = excessive.
    “Too much”
    Two = a value of two.
    “Two years of school makes you qualified to be a journalist”
    To = destination or reason
    “Return to school to learn third grade English”

    You are welcome.

  15. In my opinion the DC court of Appeals is wrong. Also in my humble opinion, the FAA is also wrong, where are the evacuation information statistics for evacuations each year? That is the proof that should be presented to the court of Appeals. With airlines packing more passengers into the planes, and it takes 15 to 25 minutes to deboard a plane. .. How can you evacuate a plane in 90 seconds?
    In my opinion, the FFA will not mandate larger seats is discrimination against poor people who can only afford to sit in economy or coach. Why would the airlines care about comfortable seats and enough leg room for people who save for a vacation, but can not upgrade? I think we need to see statistics from patients who develop blood clots because they do not have enough leg room . I wonder I’d there has ever been a study on that? Flying is amazing, and a privilege, but people should have a large enough seat and leg room.

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