The FAA would have to set minimum sizes for airplane seats under a new bill, which also contains other flier-friendly provisions.
Congresspersons heading back to their homes likely will tell their constituents that they have passed legislation mandating that the airlines MUST increase seat pitch, width and length. Most of the above links reflect that “interpretation” to Section 577 of HR 302 and consumer experts everywhere are declaring victory (not all).
Forbes contributor Marisa Garcia, in contrast, actually read Section 577. The drafter of the language must have earned an A+ in legislative drafting, especially the section on political ambiguation. The language only specifies that the minimum standard should be established as “are necessary for the safety of passengers.” The FAA has maintained that existing standards for emergency evacuations are a performance-based regulation and within that requirement seat size, width and pitch are subsumed.
Here is Ms. Garcia’s accurate, analytical article:
Unfortunately, as it has before, these feel-good stories turn sour when you look more closely at the text. The FAA Re-Authorization Bill and the Senate Report only show a requirement that the FAA study any correlation between seat dimensions and safety.
- 3121. DIMENSIONS FOR PASSENGER SEATS.
(a) In General.—Not later than 18 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall initiate a proceeding to study the minimum seat pitch for passenger seats on aircraft operated by air carriers (as defined in section 40102 of title 49, United States Code).
(b) Considerations.—In reviewing any minimum seat pitch under subsection (a), the Administrator shall consider the safety of passengers, including passengers with disabilities.”
The FAA will no doubt do as instructed by Congress and study the matter, but that doesn’t guarantee minimum seating dimensions, for several reasons.
First, the tests that the FAA requires and OEMs submit to prove the safety of seating is unchanged. None of the crash dynamic standards have come into question, even though they probably should at this point. The average size of a human today is far from the average size of a human when these test specifications were originally drafted. One could argue that the use of test-dummies that do not represent real humans is inaccurate testing. Perhaps, the crash dynamics would change significantly with a heavier, larger subject. This may be the ideal way of proving whether or not current seat designs are safe. Bad crash dynamics might lead airlines to add space to avoid head injury or to add width to avoid other injuries to the neck, back or organs.
But it is unlikely to happen.
The problem is that those test-dummies don’t fall under the purview of the FAA. They are standards set by the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers), which includes active working groups of aviation engineers who consult with the FAA. At last check, the SAE has no plans to change the standard of crash test dummies as a result, the aviation working groups are not looking into it either.
It becomes a tricky situation. The aviation side of the SAE will say that the automotive side hasn’t changed dummy dynamics. They might argue that there are far more accidents in cars than airplanes so there is really no justification for re-drafting what are already strict aircraft seat crash dynamic tests. Among other things, these require a force of impact of 16Gs—a considerably higher force than the human body could be expected to withstand.
Of course, the crash dynamics argument is not the one being used. That’s unfortunate because those new dummy standards could be mandated and new tests conducted relatively soon.
Instead, the call is to study something that is harder to prove: that there is any correlation between seat pitch (the distance between the seats front to back) and passenger safety.
Evacuation tests have standards too. New aircraft have to pass the 90-second evacuation rule. There’s a little wiggle room on when this applies, because an aircraft already approved may pass by similarity if it only adds a few seats and the access to exits is still adequate. But even when manufacturers conduct 90-second testing there is a question whether test subjects fairly represent the flying public.
The problem is that these tests are dangerous to carry out. Real people evacuating an aircraft—even when they know that there is no emergency— have injured each other in the process.
Manufacturers will limit their potential liabilities by excluding participants who might likely be injured as a crowd rushes out of the plane. They recruit a range of sizes and weights for participants that fit the rule, and nothing more.
Those who have dedicated themselves to conducting these tests over the years have disagreed on whether there is a correlation between seat width and pitch and evacuation safety. In fact, a study conducted on this in the late 90s suggested that wider seats that are further apart are safer, but the persons who conducted that study later changed their opinion. Some have even suggested that crowded seats are better because passengers leap over the seats to get to the front of the plane faster than waiting for the aisle to clear. Therefore, they say, tighter seating is actually a safety boost.
Flying is Safe
Aircraft accidents are extremely rare. That shows that the entire aviation community, including the FAA, have done their jobs. The NTSB investigators who meticulously study accidents and publish reports and recommendations to the FAA help prevent accidents and injuries from recurring.
There have been a large number of changes to every element of the aircraft cabin to keep passengers safe and prevent injuries and deaths during accidents and evacuations. The FAA, the NTSB and CAMI (Civil Aerospace Medical Institute)—as well as international regulators—have been actively studying this question all along. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t study it again, but it also doesn’t mean that they will find anything different if they use the same standards for testing.
The key thing that would motivate change would be concrete injury data. Unfortunately, that is most reliably obtained from an accident investigation.
Passengers Don’t Seem to Care Enough
We haven’t seen many cases of injuries during egress correlated to the seats, but we have seen problems with evacuations. One of the dangers in real-life is the unpredictability of passenger behavior. Passengers have delayed in evacuations because they are ignoring clear instructions from cabin crew; for example, by stopping to collect their bags. There needs to be a closer study of human factors during emergencies. Both airlines and regulators will need to find a way to get passengers to follow basic instructions in the interest of survival.
But think about why most people book exit-row seats. Is it because they are concerned for their own safety and want to be sure they get out? Is it because they are altruistic and want to be the ones who help people get out of the aircraft safely? Or is it because they want more legroom and are willing to pay for it?
Airline Standards Are The Problem
The argument that airline seats getting narrower and pitch getting tighter is a safety issue may be correct, but for the reasons listed above it is hard to prove. There just aren’t enough aircraft accidents to gather real data—which is a good thing. Again, focusing on crash dynamics tests—which do not require human beings—insisting on representative crash test dummies, might be the best way to know what needs to be fixed for good.
But the real issue is that the cabin space is becoming inhospitable for humans and dysfunctional.
Much of it is just common sense: seats are narrower and people are wider. Seats are tighter and people are taller. Seats are difficult to get in and out of and people have mobility issues. Some aircraft toilets are getting so tiny they are laughable. The only features getting bigger are in-flight entertainment seat-back screens and some airlines are cutting those out too. The cabin is often uncomfortable and unattractive. These problems will get worse as the numbers of flyers increase and the traveling public ages.
Airlines will argue the economics—people want to pay less to fly—but it’s not a straight argument. When airlines were regulated, cabin standards were different but fares were also higher. There were also fewer passengers flying and more aircraft accidents leading to injury and death.
But some airlines manage to offer better conditions. Japan Airlines long ago committed itself to make its fleet accessible and passenger-friendly by imposing universal design standards. It’s a company policy which reflects an understanding and appreciation for the needs of an aging population and respects all of the airline’s customers.
It can be done because it is the right thing to do, but airline bosses need to decide to do the right thing.
During this year’s IATA Annual General Meeting in Sydney, airlines responded to questions on this matter and showed their unwillingness to change on their own. It may require new laws to drive change, but legislators will have to find a better way to put those laws on the books.
Regulating airlines again, commercially, to ensure higher standards of service is an option, but it is something outside of the control of the FAA.
In fact, the message the FAA is getting from government is quite different. One of President Donald Trump’s first Executive Orders required a reduction in regulation—including at the USDOT. In compliance, the USDOT mandated an FAA review of regulations with manufacturers and industry experts searching for regulations that they deem ineffective or cause excessive financial burden. They have been actively proposing cuts of as many uncompetitive regulations as they can from the books. Even if Congress mandated minimum seat standards, the Executive Order might immediately nullify them
Share this article: