The FAA is Going to Test Whether Cramming So Many Passengers on Planes is Unsafe

Last year Congress mandated that the FAA perform live tests to see whether current aircraft configurations can meet a 90 second evacuation standard. The agency was directed to “issue regulations to establish minimum dimensions for airplane seat width, length and pitch that are necessary for the safety of passengers.”

And so in November they are going to do emergency evacuation testing in Oklahoma City at the agency’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, using 720 volunteers over the course of 12 days, collecting 3000 pieces of data.

At a Congressional hearing last week, Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) who has wanted the government to regulate seat size even without this testing wanted to make sure the testing came out his way. He asked FAA Deputy Administrator Daniel Elwell about the volunteers for testing, “Where are you going to get these people? You’re not going to go to Slim Fast, are you?”

This effort is the result of much lobbying by consumer groups who hope to see the government mandate greater seat width and legroom on airplanes. But mandating more of the space on each aircraft go to each passenger is a bad idea that will drive up prices and lead to less safety.

There’s little question that air travel is safe. There were zero deaths in commercial aviation in 2017. Commercial air safety has consistently improved for the past 35 years. And proponents of new rules can’t point to any incidents where those rule, prompted by aircraft densification, would have saved lives.

And the truth is that real world evacuation is always going to face challenges that testing won’t, whether it’s passengers grabbing bags from overhead bins or stopping to take selfies on the way out. That’s why a 90 second rule is useful in the first place, so that real world conditions, when they exceed 90 seconds, are still within safe parameters.

It’ll be interesting to see what develops but the upshot isn’t going to be that United, American, and Delta have to remove seats. If anything it would impact Spirit and Frontier, and that’ll mean less competition for the largest carriers and higher prices.

Moreover Spirit and Frontier have prices set so low they are the new “Southwest Effect” coined to describe the phenomenon of creating more air passengers, not just competing passengers away from other airlines. They make it possible for people to fly instead of drive, and even if 28 inch pitch seats miss the 90 second mark on evacuation, the need to evacuate is so rare (and most scenarios longer timeframes will be alright) that flying at 28 inch pitch will still be several orders of magnitude safer than driving.

If the FAA were to ban 28 inch pitch that’ll make transportation less safe, not more safe, once people on the cheapest Spirit fares return to the roads. That’s a phenomenon often referred to as “statistical murder.”

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. Hahaha. You think that statistics are going to get in the way of congress and regulators making a new rule on seat size and pitch? Hahaha.

  2. Interesting. We abhor the tight squeeze but at the same time we don’t want congress to regulate relief.

  3. Testing should be done using civilians . Pipe soothing music through the plane, do beverage service -with tray tables down and then announce an emergency evacuation. Time how many people scramble to grab carry on, laptops and avoid having beverages spilled. That would be a “true” evaluation

  4. @Amapas – it’s abhorrent to me that the first reflex of many Americans is to involve congress in changing things they don’t like. It’s not a case of cognitive dissonance to say “I don’t like X, but congress shouldn’t regulate away X”.

    Case in point: I vote against most of the local ordinances that restrict smoking around private establishments, even though I think smoking is gross and I hate it when I smell smoke.

  5. It’s about time this metric was reevaluated. Some pax are so big their bodies will act like corks, impeding the flow of traffic. If the Kettles have to pay $15 or $20 more for a better (translation: safer) seat, so be it. A side benefit would be that boarding and disembarking would go more rapidly, thereby improving aircraft turnaround times.

  6. The problem here is that the free market isn’t working. It is partially due to the lack of information in the marketplace (probably due to the OTA’s), and partially due to the lack of competition on individual routes. And, even in a free-market environment, regulation is an appropriate response to market failure.

  7. Shrinking of seat width and pitch cannot be good for the health of passengers.

    However, I do not like the regulatory option either. Regulators exist to make rules. Once they finish making the rules that you like, they have nothing to do. So to justify their existence, they make more rules. Then more rules……..It is kind of like an exponential function. Eventually, the rules require a computer to store.

  8. As the FAA is so influenced by Boeing and the airlines, I imagine if any seat changes are needed, it will only apply to future airplane orders and not any existing orders or planes in service.

  9. Kudos to Retired Lawyer above for his sane and succinct statement.
    How on earth did Americans come to buy the “free market” hogwash that airlines are perpetrating now? Every one of the domestic airlines with the possible exception of Southwest are manipulating the market like crazy in every market I know about.
    Sure people want low-cost flights — don’t customers want low cost on everything? Viz Walmart.
    But the truth is that airlines are cutting flights to cram every plane full to bursting and giving ever fewer options.
    If I actually had my choice, I would pay more for a decent seat — not child-size — though a seat at 5-8 times the cost of coach is not my idea of a choice.
    At the same time Americans have been manipulated with some warped notion of the government (and wooo-hooo) “governmental regulation” being unpatriotic and evil. Folks, try living in a few countries that do not protect their citizens! Holy frijole, that is a major reason government exists, to protect citizens and ensure the safety and rights of all.
    I am not alone in being an American who suffers to get to a coastal city and then gets on a decent international carrier. Domestic flights, domestic carriers? Not if I can help it.
    What is this nonsense about “keeping” prices low? That just isn’t true. Prices have steadily climbed and been calibrated to the point where every seat can be filled on the cutback schedule.

  10. @Gary, you state: “But mandating more of the space on each aircraft go to each passenger is a bad idea that will drive up prices and lead to less safety.”

    Upon what do you base your opinion that this will lead to less safety?

  11. It’s probably be like minimum wage, the government will establish some number and all the airliners will stick to it.

    This could be bad if it is like 27 inch pitch and 15 inches wide.

  12. “But mandating more of the space on each aircraft go to each passenger is a bad idea that will drive up prices and lead to less safety.” so? I grow tired of being crammed into seats like a sardine in the US. Maybe we shouldn’t have it so that everyone with a nickel can fly. Might help thin out some of the drastic crowds at the airports etc. Soo strange I go to some other countries and the seats are just fine. Your car accident logic is flawed. 94% of car crashes are due to dangerous choices or errors made by drivers. If people drove appropriately we wouldn’t have nearly the number of car fatalities that we do.

  13. @Gary

    I find it interesting that you (justifiably) complain so vociferously about AA’s Oasis product for example because it really is so horrible, then argue against improving things. Raising the bar for every airline will simply create a new minimum standard. This is a good thing. @Retired Lawyer is completely correct. Do you think these pigs are going to regulate themselves? Someone has to do something. A true life test of the 90 second deplaning will show that things have gone too far. The FAA tests need to have people who boarded via wheelchair, babies and small children, old people, fat people, people secretly and randomly chosen to feign injury and/or confusion, people choosing to grab belongings rather than giving other passengers time to escape, emotional support animals, etc. That is a fair test, not some perfect situation where everyone can run off the plane without breaking a sweat.

  14. It just amazes me how many are waxing eloquent about the wonders of regulations. Seriously, who makes the rules in regulation. Let me see: who has money to navigate a corrupt system? Maybe Boeing, Delta, American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, various countries that have been in the news recently. Not a pretty picture.

    In the book “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism” Kevin D Williamson argued that regulations are the new form of socialism. In old socialism (ie communism), the socialist took over the means of production. Unfortunately, when they turned out to be incompetent at managing the economy, the victims (read proletariat) blamed them. The new socialists do not actually own the means of production. They run it through overbearing regulations and rules. When the new socialist makes an decision that is catastrophic, they blame the results on the evil capitalist (who of course loses big time).

    I am not saying that seat width and pitch should not be regulated. I kind of think it might be a good idea for passenger health reasons. After a long flight in those cramped seats, I am not sure I can walk again. However, do not be naive about the possible deleterious consequences of increased regulation over the long run.

  15. May I suggest that you — and others — “However, do not be naive about the possible deleterious consequences of” failed, absent, half-hearted, false “regulation over the long run.”

    I will never understand how folks get to historical communism from basic consumer protection.

    Further, I add that, in the United States at least, the failure to regulate wisely usually ends up preceding disasters or harsh forms of regulation, e.g. separating and incarcerating children when families seek asylum. Or, widespread unregulated gun ownership and massacres.

    Is the idea to wait for an air catastrophe BEFORE there is consumer protection? And, is comfort and dignity to be disregarded in the name of “free enterprise?”

  16. @Cassandra

    You can pay more for a decent seat, and it’s definitely not 5-8 times the cost of Economy. MCE/C+/etc. products are for people who want something like the good old days Economy experience and are willing to pay more for it.

  17. @garyleff
    And half the flights in America do not offer those seats. Mostly MCE and E+ are coast to coast where I will/would indeed pay for the privilege of not being crowded in for hours. And yes, what they call “first class” often is — okay, merely 3 – 8 times — the cost of plain old economy that gets you a once-upon-time-economy seat.
    Gary, honestly, your experience as I read it over and over is international, not coach and seldom inclusive of the great flyover country of America.
    Just about no price compensates for every seat filled, mountains of carry-on, and the usual mood of aggression and defensiveness with both flight attendants and customers on those flights.
    Cheap flights like Ryanair I can endure for short distances. All very jolly. But that isn’t the story in North America.
    From where I live to the East Coast is 4 1/2 hours to BWI on SWA. That is the ONLY non-stop to anywhere East arriving north of Atlanta. That’s it. Todo. Sure, I can fly 3-4 hours to some place else, wait in no-man’s land for 2-3 hours and get back on an SWA plane taking up the whole day. But, that is IT. The “first class “decent” seat which comes at a higher price also comes with a stupid wasteful hub experience. None of those are any great bargain, either.
    If I thought that further or continued de-regulation of United States carriers would get us what European or Asian airlines offer now domestically or for shorter distances, okay, I might be ready to tolerate what we have. But honestly, domestic travel here is shabby and damned unpleasant. Consistently.

  18. @Christian – Bravo! Exactly. I would like to see a real life evac replicating reality: a flight with 3-4 wheelchair pax, 2 or 3 with service animals and three or more pax who need seat belt extensions. That is my reality. No way could this happen in 90 secs on a high density configuration.

    I just got off of a Florida flight and we had 10 whcrs, lots of kids, 3 or more “service animals” and four pax who needed seat belt extensions.

    90 seconds? Prove it!

    This is my reality.

  19. @Cassandra. No biggie: You want to make regulators in charge of all airline seats in the USA. It may start out well, but in 30 years, it will metastasize. Reagan famously said “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

  20. @Other Just Saying – Communism is not the same thing as Socialism. Communism is a type of Socialism, just as Schnauzers are a type of dog. Equating the two means that you’re saying that all dogs are Schnauzers. Otherwise, you’re taking Socialist countries like Denmark and Norway with happier people and higher standards of living than most Americans, and painting them as Communists. That’s not the case. Visit an Ikea to prove the point.

  21. @Other Just Saying — DE-regulation HAS metastasized into the current mess. What is so bad about corrective action every 30 years? My feeling is that it is long overdue, in many areas of life in the US.

    As far as that tired ol’ quote from tired ol’ Reagan, I don’t think you could have hit on someone less credible or trustworthy from that era unless it was his puppet-masters.

    And the equation of the word “socialist” with Communism is sadly uninformed, like giving away our language to the plutocrats. Having been in a Finnish hospital not long ago, I can say definitely, please, give me what they’ve got, not what I have had to pay preposterously expensive insurance coverage to get.

    The very good Finnish doctor said to me: we Finns are more fanatical about cutting costs even than you Americans. That is why we cut out the profit-making and bureaucratic part of healthcare years ago and continuously revise our standards for things like driving drunk.

    I trust him more than I ever trusted Reagan.

  22. “From where I live to the East Coast is 4 1/2 hours to BWI on SWA. That is the ONLY non-stop to anywhere East arriving north of Atlanta. That’s it. Todo.”

    What airport do you fly out of? I’m firmly convinced that people’s attitude towards air travel is mostly colored by the route network available from their hometown.

  23. The Scandinavians countries are perfect. Everyone is happy. Food is plentiful. Medical care is free and wonderful. Everything is better in those countries compared to the USA. Governments are flush with cash. No money problems at all. It is just like the Land of Oz on the other side of the great desert. Utopia. Sure I believe you. Anything that makes you happy.

  24. Albuquerque, but don’t use that against me, please.
    The airport, which is positively cute, is dominated by SWA, though even fewer of their flights stop since the ruling made with the long-ago Southwest has now elapsed (requiring a stop in a state bordering Texas.)
    Now each airline flies to its hub AA-DFW, ORD, LAX, Delta-Atlanta and SLC, United Houston, and best of all Alaska n/s to SAN. Most are one flight a day. Jetblue has one flight a day n/s from JFK and goes back, flying midnight to 6am n/s. Gee, it seems I forgot about that little gem since I have never been able to imagine leaving at midnight and ending up at JFK at 6am sitting up all night. No mints.
    This changes so please don’t take it literally. But I think we no longer have flights to Denver or El Paso. Most cities now require going through Phoenix or DFW. Even LAX usually requires a change in PHX.
    Frontier has come and gone several times and I think Allegiant flies in/out 2-3 days a week to some all-tourist spot.
    I think all this is pretty ordinary for mid-sized cities
    But Steve, I’m old. I’ve seen the good and the bad. I know crowding when I feel it and I’ve been flying for far too long. I miss Continental, TWA, Northwest (including Northwest Orient.)
    So what’s your theory?

  25. Other Just Saying – It’s great to hear you talk some sense, even though it’s only peripheral to the point. Good for you! I’d worried that you would indulge in some childish sarcasm, but it’s wonderful to see you engaging like a grownup and conceding valid points.

  26. @Christian. Seriously. (1) You started with the straw horse that I said socialism is the same as communism. Did they teach you that straw horse reasoning was valid in school. (2) You went on a loopy screed about dogs. (3) Then you went straight to the Scandinavian country talking point (although I am willing to bet you know almost nothing about the economics of Scandinavian countries). It is just the things liberals (wait, you are a self identifying conservative who promotes socialism. Go figure) say to promote government take overs of everything. See Bernie Sanders. He talks about Scandinavian countries all the time. (4) Then you said I should visit Ikea to learn about Scandinavian culture. That last one must have been a joke, it is so ludicrous.

    It is hard to beat that amount of dumb.

  27. @Other Just Saying – Try reading what I said and grow up. My conservative political view is irrelevant here.

  28. What a joke. None of them fly coach, they could not give a damn. Who needs to have a study done to see if it’s safe to cram people together. Airlines will do what they want when they want untill their customers say enough is enough (which will be never)

    If the FAA is stupid enough to allow all sorts of “pets” on aircraft I do not have much faith in them being able to make any rational decisions at all.

    Just glad my flying days are just about over, it’s no longer fun, just like taking the bus and sometimes worse.

  29. @Cassandra – it’s not a complicated theory, just that living in a hub city makes travel so much more amazing because you avoid a lot of hassles. I live in Denver and can get pretty much anywhere in the US non-stop (small market east coast cities excluded). That’s really it. I think flying is great, but that’s colored by my availability of non-stops, and because I get Economy Plus seats for free, and frequent (~20% of the time) upgrades to first.

    A good share of the complaints I hear are from people who live in smaller markets who have to take regional jets to hubs and connect, exactly like you said. Connections increase the risk of delays, lost baggage, etc. It’s not to say that you are wrong for feeling the way you feel, just that it’s more driven by the situation of living in a small market rather than airlines needing more regulation or the like. Some (most?) routes to small markets are already subsidized, and they still barely get by…

    FWIW ABQ->DEN is a 5x daily occurrence on United, with 1 even on an Airbus 319! Only 2 of the flights operate w/o E+ seats (an E145 and CRJ200).

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