It seems incongruous: as people have gotten larger, airline seats have shrunk smaller.
Advocates for bigger seats on planes like to think that they now have a chance to reverse that trend. Earlier in August, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration sought comments on “minimum seat dimensions necessary for safety of air passengers.” The regulator will accept responses for 90 days, or until November 1.
The FAA has not previously considered the issue of whether seats have become too small for the average passenger. Rather, it has focused on the more limited question of whether seats impede aircraft evacuations, which are required to take 90 seconds or less.
“Their position has been consistent,” said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights, an airline passenger advocacy group. “The way they define safety, narrowly, is to include only emergency evacuation, and they don’t think emergency evacuation is affected by seat size. They don’t include any health or comfort issues.”
While the FAA currently has no specific standards for seat pitch, the distance between the front of the seat and the back of the one in front of it, and width, it is expected to at least consider them. In 2018, as part of FAA funding process, the U.S. Congress ordered the agency to establish minimum dimensions for airline seats within a year. A section of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act directed the agency “to issue, after notice and comment, such rules as necessary for the safety of passengers with regard to the minimum dimensions, including seat pitch, width, and length, of passenger seats on aircraft.”
FlyersRights has been advocating in the courts for an established minimum seat size since 2015. Its latest salvo was a petition filed in January with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that sought to order the agency to implement minimum airline seat standards as Congress required. “The FAA has been slow rolling this thing for going on four years,” Hudson said.
Embry-Riddle professor Bijan Vasigh said consolidation has enabled the airline industry to become bolder in reducing amenities, including comfort. “It is a byproduct of the lack of competition,” he said. Consolidation during the first two decades of the 2000s saw the eight largest U.S. airlines become four — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines — that carry 80 percent of all domestic passengers.
“Before we had the mergers in the 2000s, airlines competed not only based on ticket prices, but also on the level of service, cabin service, the food, the seats and so forth,” Vasigh said. “When we [reduced] competition, there was less and less incentive to provide service. One of those services is seat size.”
Vasigh added: “We are in a market economy. Demand, not the government, should drive service levels, but we don’t have enough competition.”
Trade group Airlines for America (A4A) appears to be satisfied with the status quo. The FAA “has affirmed that all U.S. carriers meet or exceed federal safety standards regarding seat size, and the FAA continues to approve seat configurations before they go into service,” an A4A spokesperson said in a statement. They also noted that “airlines continue to invest in a wide range of innovative technologies to maximize personal space in the cabin while maintaining a level of comfort passengers expect.”
Statistics, however, show a dramatic divergence in the size of passengers and the size of airline seats. A 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that, on average, men and women gained more than 24 pounds between 1960 and 2002. A subsequent report found that between 1999 and 2016, men gained an average of 8.5 pounds and women gained an average of seven pounds. The gains equate of about 32.5 pounds for men, and 31 pounds for women between 1960 and 2016.
In addition, the mean waist circumference for adult men increased to 40.2 inches from 39 inches from 1999 to 2016, the CDC found. And the mean waist for women increased to 38.6 inches from 36.3 inches.
Yet airline seats are smaller. Today, “the average seat pitch in coach class on U.S. carriers is between 30 and 33 inches, and seat width is 17 inches to 18 inches,” according to travel site TripSavvy in 2019. Standard width was once between 19 and 20 inches, Hudson of FlyersRights said.
The difference between airlines is also significant. American configures its Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 aircraft with 30-32 inches of pitch in economy, while A320s at Spirit Airlines typically have just 28 inches of pitch, according to travel site SeatGuru. Seat width on American’s A320s ranges from 16.5-18 inches, and width on Spirit is a standard 17.5 inches.
Shrinking seat size can generally be traced back to 1967, when Boeing introduced the 737. The aircraft “had six-abreast seating — a selling point, because this way it could take more passengers per load (the DC-9 seated five abreast),” according to a 737 history on Boeing’s website.
“One of the effects of all this seat shrinkage is that a large part of the population can’t or won’t fly,” Hudson said. “Only about half the population can fit in the seats.” He added that the dividers between seats “are more like finger rests” than armrests today. “Not only can’t two people put their arms on the arm rests, now even one person can’t, because they are narrower than the arm,” he said.
A Denver firm, Molon Labe Seating, has received FAA certification of a new seat design that would increase passenger space. The design places the middle seat in a set of three as slightly behind and slightly lower than the window and aisle seats, and makes it 3-5 inches wider than the standard 18-inch seat.
Hank Scott, CEO of Molon Labe and a lecturer at the college of engineering and applied science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that narrowbody A320s or 737s could be outfitted with the new seat design for about $250,000-300,000 per aircraft. The change would mean that “when you sit down, the person next to you is higher or lower,” he said.
Spirit, which is not known for its passenger comforts, has adopted one of Molon Labe’s ideas: the wider middle seat. The cabin layout it unveiled in 2019 includes middle seats that are an inch wider than the 17-inch wide aisle and window seats its between.