FlyersRights commissioned independent aviation safety journalist, Gary Stoller, to write about aircraft seating.
May be republished with permission – call 800-662-1859 for more information
Frequent business traveler David Hall says uncomfortable airplane seats have “dramatically degraded
” the travel experience.
Foretelling the future
“The seats and their spacing allow for people to sit, not comfortably, shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, and the seat padding is either too worn on older planes or too thin on new ones,”says Hall, an engineer in Edmond, Okla., who installs medical systems.
“I am tired of leaning away from people who spread out as much as possible, and my back aches from these trips.”
Hall is one of many airline passengers complaining that airlines have jammed too many seats into planes to maximize profits, and lack of seat and leg room is irritating, unhealthy and unsafe. “I cannot imagine the chaos an emergency evacuation would cause in these cramped quarters,”he says.
Concerned about passengers’well-being, the consumer-advocacy group, FlyersRights.org, will this month file a petition with the Federal Aviation Administration calling for various pro-passenger measures, including establishing standards to improve seating conditions.
says cramped conditions in aircraft cabins promote passenger discomfort, could cause deep-vein thrombosis and can endanger a safe emergency evacuation.
The FAA has no regulations for seat size or pitch (pitch is the space from one point on a seat to the same point on the seat in front). The agency says it does not regulate comfort, the risk of deep-vein thrombosis is “very low” and seats’ size and pitch do not hinder emergency evacuations.
The width and pitch of seats varies by airline and by aircraft type. An extra inch or two in width or pitch can make a substantial difference in comfort.
According to the SeatGuru website, the pitch of coach seats on American Airlines jets, for example, varies from 31 inches to 37 inches, and the seat width varies from 17 inches to 18.5 inches. On Delta Air Lines planes, the seat pitch varies from 30 inches to 35 inches, and the seat width varies from 17.2 inches to 18.5 inches. The smallest pitch is 28 inches on some Airbus jets of budget carrier Spirit Airlines.
President Paul Hudson says congressmen and aviation policymakers in the White House should fly in the middle seat of coach-class rows until “humane seat and space standards are set, and there is a freeze on further shrinkage.
“We call on members of Congress to take a middle-seat pledge and reject airline perks-including first-class or biz-class seating-till action is taken,”says Hudson, who is also a member of the FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee. “The public needs to know how their reps vote with their tushes and who is in bed with the airline lobby.”
Airlines For America, the trade group representing U.S. airlines, sees no reason for government action.
“Airlines are spending more than $1.2 billion a month reinvesting in the customer experience,”providing “new planes, in-flight entertainment, chef-inspired meals, larger overhead bins and more,”says Melanie Hinton, the group’s spokeswoman.
“Given the variety of service options airlines offer the traveling public, we don’t see the need for government intervention. We believe the market is working, and each airline should continue to determine which products and service offerings best meet the needs of its customers.”
Many airlines charge extra for roomy coach-class seats. Delta Air Lines, for example, charges more for its “comfort-plus seats,”which provide, the airline says, up to three additional inches of legroom on domestic flights.
Hinton says Southwest Airlines recently added extra room to its coach seating; United Airlines will add new planes on its regional routes “that come with wider seats and aisles than other regional aircraft,” and Hawaiian Airlines installed “slimline seats” for more legroom on some jets.
Many customers, however, are fed up with the cramped conditions presented by most coach seats.
At a hearing of a Department of Transportation consumer advisory group in April, group member Charlie Leocha said the government establishes standards for dogs flying in a plane’s cargo hold but not for passenger seats. Leocha called on the Transportation Department and the FAA to take action “for humane treatment of passengers.”
Frequent business traveler Henry DeLozier, a partner in an international consulting firm, Global Golf Advisors, would like to be treated better.
“The progressive shrinking of seating space on aircraft is a disservice to passengers,”DeLozier says.”Other than profitability for airlines, there is no justification.”
In its petition calling on the FAA to establish seat standards, FlyersRights.org
says airlines are “aggressively reducing seat and passenger space” on new and existing planes “to squeeze more revenue out by adding more seats, charging extra for what had previously been standard seat space, to the point that passengers are loudly complaining, and health and safety is threatened.”
says that, until standards are adopted, there should be “a moratorium on reductions in seat size, width, padding, pitch and aisle width.”
Richard Rosichan says he almost got into a fistfight two years on a Spirit Airlines flight when a passenger reclined a seat into his knee.
“I dislike the crowding on virtually all coach sections of virtually all airlines these days, but my biggest gripe is people who recline their seats into my lap and make it impossible to use my tray,”says the retired 74-year-old flier who lives in Miami Beach, Fla.
Health and medical experts say a significant number of Americans are overweight or obese – another factor in many passengers’discomfort on planes. The CDC says more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and a 2014 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese.
Frequent flier Jennie Otey, a skin care therapist in Atlanta, is not overweight and doesn’t have a problem with seating conditions in coach.
“The seat spacing is fine for me,”she says. “However, I am 5-foot-4 and an average weight for my height.”
Frequent traveler Tim Orris says he will not fly because of his size.
“I am 6-foot-5 and 360 pounds, and I refuse to pay for multiple seats or have my knees crushed so a 12-year-old can recline a seat six inches,”says Orris, a booking agent for a circus company. “Seating space seems to be designed for jockeys. I either drive or find a private aircraft that will let me ride along.”
Frequent business flier John Bell is not overweight but is also disgusted with the cramped seating conditions.
“As a flier who racks up 100,000 miles a year, I can tell you with authority that seating space is disgraceful,”says the senior vice president for a software company in Virginia. “In coach, I can’t even open my laptop if the guy in front leans back.
“You can’t stretch your legs anymore or turn in your seat to take a nap, Bell says. “God help us if we have to get out of those torture devices in an emergency. Passengers, airlines and the FAA must be concerned that current seating configurations make aircraft essentially inescapable with limited time.”
FAA spokesman Les Dorr says “the critical factor” in an emergency evacuation is “the time required for people to pass through the emergency exits, rather than the time they need to leave their seats and reach the exits.”
Dorr says numerous evacuation demonstrations and “actual emergencies “have shown that “providing more space between seats would mean, at best, that passengers would spend more time at the emergency exits waiting their turn to egress.
“While passengers may find the typical seat pitches of today to be less comfortable, they do not pose a safety issue, “he says.
Regardless of seating configuration, the FAA requires aircraft manufacturers to show that all passengers aboard a passenger jet can be evacuated in 90 seconds.
In its petition to the FAA, FlyersRights.org
maintains that “narrow aisle widths make timely emergency evacuation difficult.”
Frequent business traveler Phil Bush says lack of seating space is definitely a health concern on long flights.
“You need to be up and moving about a little on any flights over a few hours,”says the Atlanta-based sales enablement consultant who has flown on about 50 flights this year. “If not, you are subject to issues with blood clots.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “prolonged cramped sitting during long-distance travel” interferes with blood flow in the legs. This can lead to deep-vein thrombosis – blood clots that could be life-threatening. Risk of deep-vein thrombosis increases with height, “possibly because taller passengers have less leg room, “the CDC says.
The World Health Organization says the risk of deep-vein thrombosis increases two to three times after long-haul flights and other modes of travel involving “prolonged seated immobility.”On average, one of every 6,000 passengers will “suffer from “deep-vein thrombosis after a long-distance flight, the WHO says.
In most cases of deep-vein thrombosis, blood clots are small and do not cause any symptoms, according to the WHO. Larger clots, though, may cause swelling of the leg, tenderness, soreness and pain. Occasionally, the WHO says, a piece of a clot may break off and become lodged in the lungs, “causing chest pain, shortness of breath and, in severe cases, sudden death.”
After consulting with the FAA’s Federal Air Surgeon office, the FAA’s Dorr says “there is no evidence of a difference between the incidence” of deep-vein thrombosis “in passengers seated in a business-class seat versus those sitting in economy class.”Business-class seats are often wider and have more leg room than coach seats.
Previous studies, Dorr says, have shown “immobilization is a significant risk factor in air travelers.”Passengers on flights exceeding four hours-particularly those who are obese or use oral contraceptives – should move about to minimize the risk of deep-vein thrombosis, he says.
John Steinberg, a doctor and a consultant who has flown on 58 flights this year, says seating space in coach is “bad and getting worse,” and he has another health concern.
“We are now seated so close that catching communicable diseases is more likely, “says Steinberg of Randallstown, Md. “Catching drug-resistant tuberculosis can be life altering, and even a cold, though harmless, makes working on the road a lot more difficult.”