Airplane Seats Are Shrinking: Can The Government Fix It?

Did you feel packed in like a sardine into a tin can the last time you flew on a plane? You’re not alone, and now you’ve got a chance to say something about the size of airplane seats—and to possibly help make a difference.

Through November 1, 2022, the FAA is seeking public opinion on the cramped state of flying today. And if the 13,000-plus comments that have been made so far on the site are any indication, people aren’t happy at all.

“As someone who is 6’5” tall, airplane seats do not take into account for someone who is as tall as I am,” writes Kalub Hall.

“All seats should be the same as business class, economy is torture for flights over 2 hours,” writes Damonn Psket.

“As a long time flyer with almost 3 million miles on Delta alone, I have been concerned for years about the impact of shrinking seat sizes and the space between rows of seats on emergency evacuation,” writes Roger Stoller.

According to Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes, it’s not just your imagination. “Airplanes really have been getting more cramped. A longterm trend in the airline industry has been densification: more seats squeezed into the same amount of airplane real estate,” says Keyes. “Over the past few decades, average seat width has narrowed two inches and average search pitch has shrunk three inches. It’s no wonder the FAA is seeing such a glut of comments pushing back on narrowing seat sizes.”

The FAA does not have a minimum standard for the size of airline seats or the pitch—the space between your seat and the one in front of you.

The current call for action goes back to October 2018 when Congress mandated an FAA review of the size of seats on airplanes, in order to examine not only passenger comfort but also safety in the event of an evacuation. Although the FAA studied simulated evacuations and acknowledged that “additional data regarding evacuations could be valuable,” nothing happened. So now the current administration is turning up the heat on the FAA and the airlines to get something done.

In addition, the non-profit organization FlyerRights recently filed a petition calling on the FAA to set minimum seat standards, citing the need for passenger comfort and safety.

But according to travel experts, it might not be as easy as easy as it seems—and it might cost passengers, in the end.

“Everybody loves to dump on the airlines. Outside of cable companies and the dentist, who doesn’t love to hate the airlines?” says Scott Meyerowitz, the executive editor of The Points Guy, a travel site that regularly covers the airlines.

Safety aside, Meyerowitz points out there is an economic reality that a lot of consumers aren’t considering when they complain about seat size. “The more people you can squeeze into a plane, the more profitable you can be. Or as the airlines will say—the closer you can come to breaking even,” says Meyerowitz.

Meyerowitz makes the point that there’s already a free market solution to the problem with cramped seats: “If you want more leg room, you can pay up for it. And if you really want more space, you can pay for first class.”

So the big question becomes: What happens if the government starts to regulate this? “Do airlines have to rip out their entire seats? Do airfares go up 15 to 20%?” says Meyerowitz. “That’s great until you are asked to pay another fifty or a hundred dollars to go home to see grandma for the holidays.”


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