What the new FAA funding legislation says about airplane seat sizes | Cruising Altitude

The new Federal Aviation Administration authorization has a lot of wonky stuff, but some interesting nuggets have fallen through the cracks.

The high-profile changes, of course, include things like much-needed additional funding for air traffic control staffing and codifying passenger compensation rules into law. One thing that hasn’t gotten as much attention, though, is the new push to get the FAA to regulate seat sizes.

Let’s back up for a second.

The last long-term FAA funding bill passed in 2018 required the agency to study evacuation standards and how seemingly ever-densifying airplane cabins affect the ability of people to get off the plane safely in an emergency. Regulations stipulate that all passengers should be able to evacuate any airplane in 90 seconds or less with only half the emergency exits available.

Airlines and airplane manufacturers have mostly addressed this requirement through computer models in recent years, rather than live evacuation testing, but the previous law required a new live demonstration.

Members of Congress were not satisfied with how that played out.

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., told me the last tests, which didn’t include any senior citizens, minors, or disabled participants, weren’t really representative of the traveling public.

“If you want to find out what is the ability to get off an airplane, you’ve got to have a valid sample,” he said in an interview.

So Cohen and other members of Congress pushed to get more robust testing provisions in the new FAA legislation, and Cohen said he’s optimistic it will get done properly this time around.

“It’s a much better bill for us than last time,” he told me. “It specifically says the testing has to be more practical.”

Should there be minimum dimensions for airplane seats? The FAA is again tasked with looking into it.
Should there be minimum dimensions for airplane seats? The FAA is again tasked with looking into it.

What is the minimum airplane seat size?

There’s no minimum standard for economy seats on airplanes (or seats in any other class, for that matter) in the U.S., and members of Congress say they suspect that could impede safety.

Economy airplane seats can be as close together as 28 inches on some airlines, and barely more than 16 inches wide in some configurations. The 28-inch dimension measures pitch, or the distance from a point on one seat to the same point on the seat in the row ahead. The width of airplane seats is typically defined as the distance between a seat’s armrests.

Tight airplane seats can also be uncomfortable, especially on long flights, as many of you let me know when I asserted that we’re in something of a golden age for air travel affordability and connectivity a few weeks ago.

What does the FAA reauthorization say about airplane seat sizes?

The new FAA legislation requires the agency to reevaluate evacuation standards “including studying the impacts of passenger age, height and weight, disability status, speech difficulties, language barriers, baggage, seat size and configuration, and service animals, among other factors.”

Depending on what that testing shows, there could soon be a floor for airplane seat sizes, although that could drive up prices if airlines are forced to space out their seats more.

For its part, the FAA said it plans to comply with the regulations and begin making a rule for minimum seat sizes within 60 days or send its reasoning for any further delay to Congress.

“The FAA is grateful to have a long-term, bipartisan reauthorization bill and we look forward to implementing all provisions, including how to include all perspectives of the flying public as we continue to ensure planes can be evacuated safely,” the agency said in a statement.

What can be learned from real-world evacuations?

While evacuation testing is good, it can never quite replicate real-world evacuation scenarios. This year has already seen two noteworthy airplane evacuations: one of a Japan Airlines Airbus A350 in Tokyo and, more recently, a Delta Air Lines Airbus A321neo in Seattle.

Both evacuations took more than 90 seconds from the time the emergency slides were first deployed, although, fortunately, there were no fatalities on either.

Looking more closely at the Delta incident, the video shows people evacuating from both sides of the plane, and the procedure appears to take about two minutes from when the slides first deployed until the last person is seen walking away from the aircraft.

One aspect that surely slowed down the evacuation was the fact that many passengers appeared to take their bags with them. In an emergency, travelers should leave all their belongings behind, as bags and other items could block exits or slow people down on their way to the door.

It’s possible, though by no means guaranteed, that the Delta evacuation could have happened in 90 seconds or less if passengers did not collect their belongings first.

Cohen acknowledged that evacuations can be slowed down by baggage, and said it’s worth exploring how that affects the timeline.

“The rules should be what’s safe, and if the bags make it longer and it causes people in the last 30 seconds to die, that’s what happens, but the rules won’t change that,” he said.

Cohen and other members of Congress have previously said that they will wait to see what the test results show before endorsing specific minimum airplane seat dimensions, but Cohen did say that he expects airlines will ultimately have to make their layouts a little roomier.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why minimum seat standards may be coming to planes | Cruising Altitude