Besides being extremely uncomfortable, are cramped airline seats a hazard to your safety?
Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration finally gave its answer, which amounted to: Nothing to worry about here, folks.
That shouldn’t necessarily be the final word on the subject.
As every frequent or even infrequent flyer knows, many seats in coach these days are more suited to sardines than people.
In recent years, airlines have shrunk average seat “pitch,” a proxy for legroom, along with the width of individual seats. Average pitch in economy has narrowed from about 35 inches to 31 inches. On some discount carriers, such as Spirit and Frontier, pitch is as narrow as 28 inches. Average seat width has shrunk from 18 inches to 17 inches or less.
At the same time, Americans have grown larger: In 2013-14, the latest statistics available, more than 70 percent of Americans were overweight and nearly 38 percent were obese. An average woman who weighed 140 pounds in 1960 weighed 166 pounds in 2010. The average man went from 166 to 195 pounds.
So back in 2015, a passenger advocacy group called Flyers Rights — worried that narrowed spacing, combined with Americans’ expanding waistlines, impedes emergency evacuations — petitioned the FAA to regulate airline seat sizes.
The agency, however, quickly blew off the group’s argument. Flyers Rights appealed, and last July, a federal appellate court in Washington blasted the FAA for its cavalier dismissal of plausible concerns and its insistence that tests showed no safety problem while refusing to reveal any of those tests. “The administration cannot hide the evidentiary ball,” U.S. Circuit Judge Patricia Millett wrote in her opinion. She ordered the FAA to produce the evidence it said it had.
Almost a year later, the FAA came back with the same answer: There’s “no evidence” seat dimensions or increasing passenger size hamper evacuations. Its proof? A few video clips of evacuation tests done by airplane manufacturers, all lacking important context.
The FAA’s standards for who’s included in evacuation tests — last updated in 1993 — don’t even require manufacturers to include some test volunteers who are overweight. Nor do the tests involve children, infants, the elderly or disabled, because they could be injured. While that’s understandable, it’s hard to have confidence in tests that don’t represent a planeload of typical Americans. And what about an emotional support animal or two in the mix?
Passengers have grown angrier over the industry’s shrinking seats and cramped rows that leave fliers with one alternative: paying their way out of pain. If that’s simply a matter of comfort, the government doesn’t need to be involved.
But if it’s also a matter of health and safety, that’s a different story. It is up to the government to require tests that actually simulate the real world of today’s airline travel. And if those tests show a problem, it will be up to regulators or Congress to mandate minimums.
USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.
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