Bill Would Set Minimum Airline Seat Standards

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A Tennessee congressman on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation has introduced a bill that establishes minimum dimensions for passenger seats on commercial aircraft operating in the United States. The proposed law comes on the eve of the contentious markup session for the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.

“Consumers are tired of being squeezed, both physically and fiscally, by airlines,” said Congressman Steve Cohen, a Democrat representing Tennessee's Ninth Congressional District. “Shrinking seat sizes isn’t just a matter of comfort, but safety and health as well. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency, yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s smaller seats. Doctors have also warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who can’t move their legs during longer flights.”

Insiders say Cohen is likely to try to include the language of this bill in the house version of the FAA bill. There appears to be significant support for such language on the Senate side, making the move for minimum seat standards a likely slam-dunk for the final version of this bill.

Calls for minimum seat standards have been growing louder in the last two years. As airline profits have risen, the amount of personal space given to passengers in economy class has shrunk. Some have even called it a human rights issue.

Here's the full text of the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act:

A bill to direct the Secretary of Transportation to issue regulations that establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats on aircraft operated by any air carrier in the provision of interstate air transportation or intrastate air transportation, and for other purposes.

This Act may be cited as the ‘‘Safe Egress in Air Travel Act of 2016’’ or ‘‘SEAT Act of 2016’’.

MINIMUM PASSENGER SEAT DIMENSIONS.

(a) IN GENERAL.—Not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall issue such regulations as are necessary to establish minimum dimensions (including width, length, and seat pitch) for passenger seats on aircraft operated by any air carrier in the provision of interstate air transportation or intrastate air transportation; and (2) for the safety and health of passengers.

(b) DEFINITIONS.—

(1) IN GENERAL.—The terms defined in section 40102 of title 49, United States Code, have, respectively, the definitions given such terms in that section.

(2) SEAT PITCH.—The term ‘‘seat pitch’’means the distance from any point on one seat to the same point on the seat in front of or behind it.

Cohen notes that the average distance between rows of seats has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has also shrunk, from 18 inches to about 16½.

What will happen to the SEAT Act? We'll know more after tomorrow's hearing on the FAA Bill. Odds are, the committee will be so preoccupied with privatizing air traffic control, this one will soar on through.

Stay tuned.

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