‘Miserable,’ ‘Unsafe,’ ‘Torture’: FAA Deluged With Complaints Over Shrinking Airline Seats

It’s not your imagination. Airline seats have shrunk over the years, as carriers have sought to maximize revenue by cramming more people into every plane. In the past two decades, the width of the average seat has narrowed from 18.5 to 17 inches, now allowing 30 to 32 inches of legroom — a tight fit for many adults.

The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has been loathe to interfere in the carriers’ business model so long as passengers are able to evacuate an aircraft in 90 seconds. But change may be coming. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 directed the agency to “set minimums for seat pitch, width, and length necessary for the safety of passengers.”

In August, when the FAA opened the topic for 90 days of public commentary, it got quite an earful.

As more than 26,000 messages from travelers flooded in, a theme emerged. A whopping 3,708 comments mention the word “uncomfortable,” topping “cramped” (1,842), “tight” (1,203), “crammed” (1,100), “squeezed” (1,100) and “squished” (260). Folks described flying as “miserable” (381), “terrible” (217) “horrible” (206) and “awful” (104). The word “torture” appears in 193 comments.

“The average human can barely sit cross armed and holding in all their parts as much as possible,” wrote one commenter.

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Many people addressed body size and shape, describing themselves and their fellow passengers as “tall” (2,508), “obese” (899), “fat” (638)” or “thin” (229). Though some were mean spirited, other comments were downright empathetic.

One woman wrote about a flight seated in the last row near the bathroom: “What truly stuck out was the contortions my row mate had to make to fit in the limited space. A lanky gent of about 6'4," his knees were pressed up against the seat ahead of him with no option to tilt his seat back.”

Where does it hurt most? Posters mention their “legs” (5,800), “knees” (2,900), “head” (567) and “elbow” (370). There were analogies comparing flyers to “sardines” (667), “cattle” (328) and “pigs” (11).

Given the agency’s focus, it is telling that so many comments mention “safety” (6,266) along with “evacuation” (5,109), “unsafe” (1,199), “stuck” (445) and “trapped” (403).

The very first person to leave a comment on August 3 wrote: “The current seats are too small for Americans of average size, myself included. A seat that’s too small, especially one where the armrests significantly encroach on personal space, makes it very difficult and uncomfortable to get into/out of the seat. I worry that this will significantly impact my ability to quickly evacuate the aircraft in case of emergency.”

Speaking of size, more than 700 commenters addressed the diminutive lavatories on planes. “Hello - has anyone considered the fact that the bathrooms are also too small to accommodate larger people?” wrote one anonymous commenter. “I’m afraid to drink anything before a flight for fear I may actually need to use the bathroom.”

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