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Seat size and pitch is always a hot topic, and now the federal government is considering getting involved. Today, TPG Associate Editor Emily McNutt chats economy seating with Chuck Schumer, one of the US Senate’s most outspoken traveler advocates.
Airplane seats in the economy cabin have always been tight, but at least they used to offer enough room for passengers to move around comfortably. But lately, seats seem to be continuously shrinking, and it feels like a constant battle with the airlines — and the person sitting in front of you — to fight for more legroom. The situation has now escalated to the point that one key lawmaker is proposing that the government step in and do something about it.
US Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer (D-NY) announced last week that he’s going to push for an amendment in the upcoming FAA Reauthorization Bill that will require a minimum seat measurement for airplanes. All travelers know this best — their legroom seems to be shrinking, but at what point does the space on an airplane seat become too small? Senator Schumer hopes that the FAA will establish some boundaries.
Schumer has the stats to back his proposal. He says that pitch has dropped from 35 inches on the average economy seat to approximately 31 inches now after airline deregulation in the 1970s. And that’s including Spirit’s measly 28 inches of pitch with “pre-reclined” seats. In addition, seat width has shrunk from 18.5 inches in the 90s and 00s to approximately 17 inches today, and that’s with the average American’s expanding body.
The Senator told TPG he was very attached to the issue from a personal standpoint. “I’m not that tall — a little less than 6-foot, 1-inch,” he said. “And when I ride — and I ride in coach, generally — I take out of the pocket in front of me the bulletin, the air sickness bag and the safety folder so I get a quarter-inch more legroom.”
So how much space, exactly, does the Senator want to see with economy seats? That, he said, should be left to the FAA to determine a measurement that’s both safe and comfortable for people. He said he’ll abide by the FAA’s decision — at least initially. There have been attempts at getting the FAA to pass similar legislation in the past, most recently from Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN) who introduced the Safe Egress in Air Travel Act of 2016, or “SEAT Act.” However, that bill failed in committee. Senator Schumer said that his is similar to Rep. Cohen’s, but his is going to pass.
To Senator Schumer, this issue extends far past party lines and is applicable to members of both parties, as well as everyday travelers, no matter their political stance. “I’ve had about 15 of my Senate colleagues — both Democrats and Republicans — come up to me and say what a great idea it is,” Schumer said. “We have gotten such feedback on this issue — people are stopping me in the streets. Rarely has such an issue generated such support so quickly.” It’s a safety issue in the sense that if something were to happen on board and everyone needed to evacuate, it’s much harder to get out of the aircraft when the seats are closer together, he said.
In addition to the safety issue, it’s also a comfort issue. The Senator often finds himself in the middle of the ongoing debate — to recline or not to recline. He said that he’s so used to the person in front of him reclining their seat and having his knees hit on impact that he doesn’t say anything anymore. The Senator errs on the side of the recliner in this instance, saying you know the person reclining is suffering too because they don’t have much room either.
The current FAA authorization ends on March 31, so Senator’s Schumer’s push comes at a time when it’s likely to make the greatest impact. Below is a breakdown of each domestic airline’s fleet, with the dimensions of each economy seat, the smallest of which is bolded:
The dimension’s for Alaska’s fleet.
Average pitch: 31.88
Average width: 17
The dimensions for American’s fleet:
|Airbus A319 (V2)||31||18|
|Boeing 757-200 (Domestic)||31-32||17.2|
|Bombardier CRJ-900 (V3)||31||17.3|
|Embraer ERJ-175 (V2)||31-32||18.25|
|MD Super 80||31-32||18|
Average pitch: 31.14
Average width: 17.53
Delta Air Lines
The seat dimensions for Delta’s fleet:
|Airbus A319-100 (V1)||30-31||17.2|
|McDonnell Douglas MD-88||31-33||18.1|
|McDonnell Douglas MD-90||30-31||18.1|
Average pitch: 31.22
Average width: 17.74
The seat dimensions for Frontier’s fleet:
Average pitch: 29.5
Average width: 18
The seat dimensions for JetBlue’s fleet:
Average pitch: 33
Average width: 18.02
The seat dimensions for Southwest’s fleet:
Average pitch: 32.13
Average width: 17
The seat dimensions for Spirit’s fleet:
Average pitch: 28
Average width: 17.75
The seat dimensions on United’s fleet:
|Boeing 737-800 (V2)||31||17.2|
|Boeing 737-900 (V1/V2)||31||17.3|
|Boeing 757-200 (V1)||31||17|
|Boeing 767-300 (Three Class)||31||18|
|Boeing 777-200 (V1/V2)||31||18|
|Bombardier CRJ-700 (VA/V3)||31||17|
|Bombardier Q400 (V2)||32||17|
|Embraer EMB 170||31||18.2|
|Embraer EMB 175||31||18|
Average pitch: 31.05
Average width: 17.47
Based on our calculations, the airline with the largest average pitch is JetBlue (33), which also has the largest average seat width (18.02). On the other end of the spectrum, the carrier with the smallest average seat pitch is Spirit (28), whereas the carrier with the smallest average seat width is a tie between Alaska and Southwest (17).
As for Senator Schumer himself, when he’s flying between Washington, D.C., and New York, he takes the shuttle — usually Delta or American, but he used to fly US Airways. However, when flying to upstate New York, the Senator prefers JetBlue — and who can blame him, the carrier has the largest average seat pitch and width. He said he doesn’t have a favorite premium cabin because he rarely flies it, and he couldn’t compare the legroom on international carriers because he rarely flights out of the country.
But, the Senator did say he’s a TPG reader — and hopefully with the tips he’s learned, he maximizes his flights between the Capitol and New York. And, hopefully for the sake of all economy travelers, there’s some seat regulation in the near future. With the added (or returned) legroom, it would make for a more comfortable ride, but at what cost? Airlines are already making record profits with the shrinking seats, and in return, travelers are seeing airfares continue to decline. But with Senator Schumer’s proposed addition to the FAA Reauthorization Bill, in what ways, if any, will that affect the way we travel? While there’s no way to truly know the answer to that, at least flyers would have their legroom back.
What do you think about Senator Schumer’s proposal?
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