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‘SEAT Act’: Congress set to finally push back against shrinking airline seats

As most people who’ve flown in an airplane have probably noticed, cabin seats have been shrinking over the past few decades. Since the 1970s, the average economy seat pitch—the distance between the seats—has shrunk from 35 inches to 31 inches, further pressurizing cabins and passengers’ tempers.

This has allowed airlines to squeeze more seats in, or to make more room for larger seats they can sell at a premium. Today, travelers need to purchase premium economy seats for the same amount of legroom they used to get with the old economy.

And it’s getting worse: In May American Airlines (AAL) said it would be shaving two inches of legroom in economy class, going from 31 to 29. Public blowback led the airline to partially reverse its decision and only cut one inch from most rows.

But passengers’ knees, legs, and elbows are on track to get a reprieve thanks to the dogged efforts of one member of Congress, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN).

Cohen is finally looking at a win in his third year waging war against shrinking seats, having steered a version of his Safe Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act into the FAA reauthorization bill as an amendment, after failing numerous times. (The FAA’s budget and mandate must be authorized regularly.) The amendment would ask the FAA to study evacuations and issue regulations for minimum safe-seat sizes.

The bill is on the House’s agenda for a vote this week.

Evacuation with tiny seats could turn a plane into a coffin

While many people see comfort as the main problem of cramped seats, Cohen sees a public health and safety disaster waiting to happen. With more cramped and smaller seats—and increasingly large Americans—evacuations may not go as smoothly.

“I don’t want to see a day when there’s a plane crash and the [NTSB] ascertains that the plane couldn’t be evacuated in the proper time and people lost their lives from smoke inhalation of fire,” Cohen told Yahoo Finance. “Often it’s a tragedy that gets Congress to act. Safety and health are issues, and that’s the way we’ve framed it to get support.”

While every new aircraft model is tested for evacuation by the FAA, Cohen says the evacuations have not been tested with today’s smaller seats. The legislation would direct the FAA to use the results of the study to “issue regulations that establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats…necessary for the safety and health of passengers.”

It’s about comfort, but also not about comfort

Though comfort is a concern, Cohen has been careful to focus on safety and less on “legislating comfort,” something that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has thrown his support behind the measure in the Senate, has been accused of recently.

“This should be a fact-based matter, not an attempt to legislate seat comfort,” former American Airlines president Bob Crandall told Yahoo Finance. “I have no problem with requiring new tests, since 28-inch pitch strikes me as potentially dangerous—unless it has already been tested.”

Rep. Steve Cohen Tennessee Congress SEAT
Rep. Steve Cohen with actor Jane Seymour at an event for the Alzheimer’s Association. (Getty)

Cohen’s public-safety slant was enough to mobilize senators like Schumer, Ed Markey (D-MA), and others to push a version of his amendment into the Senate’s reauthorization bill.

It was also enough to get support from across the aisle. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) co-sponsored a standalone version of the SEAT Act earlier in 2017. “We must ensure standards are in place to provide safe air travel for passengers,” he said in June. “Cutting down legroom to add more seats to the already crowded planes is simply dangerous.”

Airline scandals have crippled Cohen’s formidable opposition

Cohen says the airline industry’s friendship with members of Congress and members on the Subcommittee on Aviation has kept his fight protracted. “[Industry groups] are politically savvy enough to be helpful in campaigns and therefore have political leverage,” Cohen said. “So people have been reticent to oppose industry groups that have PACs. So that’s made it difficult.”

In the past, Airline industry groups like Airlines for America have opposed Cohen’s measures to regulate seating in the past, noting that customers can “vote with their wallet” and choose something else if they don’t want to fly. But one glance at the average seat pitch shows that market forces may not be enough.

“There’s a limited amount of airlines and not much competition,” says Cohen. “There are lots of people without a choice. Often they have to do it as a necessity for someone’s funeral or to get a job. It’s a big expense.”

In a statement reacting to the FAA Reauthorization bill, Airlines for America did not reject Cohen’s amendment, and an A4A spokesperson told Yahoo Finance “we continue to believe the government’s role in seat sizes for all forms of transportation.”

The FAA says planes can be evacuated in 90 seconds. (AP)
The FAA says planes can be evacuated in 90 seconds. (AP)

In the wake of airline scandals such as United’s forcible ejection of a paying customer from a plane, Cohen thinks the industry may not have the social capital to fight.

Multiple airlines, including Delta (DAL), Southwest (LUV), and American (AAL), told Cohen’s office they would not lobby against it. United (UAL), star of recent public relations disasters, was the only one of the “big four” absent from this list. A spokesperson for the airline did not comment on the legislation.

“The industry, I think, doesn’t want to have themselves look like a sore thumb again after the doctor was taken off the United plane and other highly publicized instances of consumer issues,” said Cohen.

What happens next

There’s a light at the end of Cohen’s tunnel. If precedent is any indicator, the legislation will stay in. “It’ll stick in this time because the Senate put it in [their reauthorization] bill too,” says a hopeful Cohen. “Generally, when it connects on both sides, it stays in. I think it’ll stay in. I don’t think they‘ll resist in the conference committee.”

Without major opposition from the airlines and paths in both houses, Cohen’s amendment is looking at a string of green lights to President Trump’s desk and pen. However, compromise is providing some of the bill’s fuel. The bill asking the FAA to establish safe minimums gives a year, a longer timetable than Cohen would have liked.

Even though the measures are likely to pass, consumers shouldn’t expect instant relief even in that time frame. Cohen is wary of other speedbumps.

“I’m sure the industry would try to get them to slow-walk it,” he said. “They have influence in Congress and the administrative world. It’s still a long way from being implemented, and the FAA is now going to be not as consumer-oriented under the Trump administration—which is not consumer-oriented at all.”

It’s also possible that the FAA tests may find evacuation is not an issue with current seats. An FAA spokesperson told Yahoo Finance: “demonstration criteria require that an airplane must be evacuated in simulated emergency conditions in less than 90 seconds, regardless of the seat size. Aircraft manufacturers have tested seats below 30 inches.”

For now, squeezed consumers are going to have to pony up for the premium economy if they want more room. But still, they might not get it.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, tech, and personal finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann. Got a tip? Send it to tips@yahoo-inc.com.

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