In 2014 I first wrote here about the issue of incredibly shrinking aircraft accommodations with “Think airline seats have gotten smaller? They have.” Using archived data, I detailed how both legroom (as measured in seat pitch) and comfort (as measured in seat width) have both been steadily decreasing since the 1980s. In the four years since that column was widely disseminated, conditions have only gotten worse.
Therefore the recent headlines declaring that Congress had addressed airborne seat shrinkage seemed like welcome news. But the underlying issues are much more complex. And it’s way too soon to celebrate more legroom in an industry that is actively squeezing us into increasingly cramped quarters.
The government appears all but certain to regulate minimum seat sizes for airline flights after the Senate voted 93-6 to pass legislation that extends funding for the FAA for another five years. The legislation also includes provisions that affect air travelers.
Chief among them: The bill orders the FAA to set standards for the size of airline seats, part of what’s known as the “Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act.” The agency would have one year to come up with minimum requirements for seat width and for the space between seats.
The legislation has already been passed by the House and is expected to be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
As for the seat sizes, however, it’s unclear what rules the agency might ultimately adopt. Passengers’ rights groups undoubtedly hope the FAA might pass requirements that would require airlines to add more space to seats that now have as little as 29 inches between rows. However, it’s possible that the FAA’s rules could instead end up codifying the tightest seating arrangements already offered on U.S. airlines.
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Lawmakers abandoned a plan backed by airlines to privatize the nation’s air-traffic-control system. And congressional negotiators dropped a proposal to crack down on “unreasonable” airline fees.
“Congress has missed an historic, once in a generation opportunity to stop gargantuan airlines from gouging Americans with exorbitant fees every time they fly,” said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee who sponsored the provision in a Senate version of the bill that was dropped from the final version
The FAA legislation also includes other stipulations. It bars carriers from involuntarily removing passengers who’ve already boarded, a rule with echoes of the passenger-dragging incident on United in April 2017.
“I think we can all agree that once you’ve boarded a plane, you shouldn’t be kicked off until you arrive at your destination,” said Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
The legislation also instructs airlines to create better communication protocols for informing customers about flight delays.
Other details in the legislation: The Department of Transportation would be instructed to set rules for service and emotional-support animals on planes including “reasonable measures to ensure pets are not claimed as service animals.” Live animals would be prohibited from being transported in overhead compartments.