Are Airplane Seats Too Small? Duckworth Wants the FAA to Look Again

ook at whether airplane seats are too cramped. (Juan Silva/Photodisc / Getty Images)Two U.S. Senate Democrats want the Biden administration to take another look at whether airplane seats are too cramped. (Juan Silva/Photodisc / Getty Images)

(CNN) — Two Democrats in the U.S. Senate want the Biden administration to take another look at whether airplane seats are too cramped.

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The pressure — in the form of legislation from Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Tammy Baldwin — would require the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct new airplane cabin evacuation tests with more realistic conditions, and issue standards that include the size of and space between seats. The senators are concerned about safe evacuation in an emergency. But the issue of seat size is near and dear to travelers frustrated with wedging into tight coach seats.

“You say, Hey, do you think the FAA — when they conduct a test — should simulate the actual people that are in the aircraft?’” Duckworth said to reporters on a conference call. “I think most Americans would say, ‘Well, yeah, don’t they already do that?’”

Her criticism refers to aircraft evacuation testing the FAA conducted in 2019. The mock cabins used 60 “passengers” — far fewer than in most commercial jets — between the ages of 18 and 60 but did not include senior citizens, people with mobility disabilities or carry-on luggage.

“Obviously, the FAA simply chose to ignore the reality of flying in America today,” Duckworth said.

The FAA declined to comment on the matter.

The tests and standard seat sizes were criticized by passenger and safety advocates. Flyers Rights, a nonprofit organization, unsuccessfully pushed the FAA to regulate a minimum seat size, citing among other issues concerns about blood clotting due to tight quarters. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants labor union, told Congress that “flight attendants are left to manage the frustrations of passengers jammed into ever-shrinking space.” And some say a modern, crowded cabin could not be fully evacuated within 90 seconds, the FAA’s standard.

The FAA explained to CNN at the time that the 2019 tests were to “first decide if it’s a safety issue,” and the findings concluded common seat sizes were not an obstacle to evacuation. “Based on this study’s results, currently flying seat pitches using seats of similar size or smaller than those used in this project can accommodate and not impede egress for 99% of the American population,” the report said.

More than 26,000 comments poured in when the FAA asked the public last year whether it should regulate a minimum seat size in the name of evacuation and safety. The industry group representing major air carriers, Airlines for America, wrote that “there is no factual or data predicate that supports promulgating additional rules concerning aircraft seat dimensions.” Alluding to the 2019 tests, it said the FAA had already “concluded that current aircraft seating configurations, seat size standards, and evacuation procedures are safe.”

But Duckworth, who leads the Senate subcommittee regulating airlines, said she wants the FAA to take another look rather than wait for a “tragedy to bring our aircraft evacuation standards up to date.” The Illinois Democrat is reintroducing the legislation as her committee hashes out new directives for the FAA in a process called reauthorization.

“There’s no reason we can’t simulate these real-world conditions that we see every day on flights so we can have more realistic evacuation standards,” Duckworth said. “I mean, for crying out loud, put some carry-on baggage on the (test) aircraft.”

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