For at least the third time in as many years, federal lawmakers are hoping to pass legislation that would set minimum standards for airline seating. That battle inched slightly closer to becoming a reality last night.
On Tuesday, the House Transportation Committee approved a bill that reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration, including an amendment offered by Rep. Steve Cohen (TN) that would establish minimum dimensions: seat widths, length, and pitch (the spacing between rows of seats).
The amendment is effectively the same as the SEAT Act, a separate piece of legislation that Cohen introduced earlier this year. Like that bill, this amendment doesn’t prescribe any seat dimensions. Instead, it directs the Secretary of Transportation to come up with appropriate minimum standards that “are necessary for the safety and health of passengers.”
One thing to be mindful of: There’s no promise that any seat standards set by the DOT/FAA would be any better than what we have now. There’s even the chance that regulators could look at the typical 16.5″ seat and determine that this is just fine, or that it could get even skinnier without putting travelers at risk. That’s not to say they will do that; just that you shouldn’t get your hopes up that any law will stop your knees from knocking into the seat in front of you every time you move.
A potential positive about putting the dimensions in the DOT’s hands is that the public would be allowed to comment and provide feedback during the rulemaking period. Again, that doesn’t mean your flight is going to get any more luxurious, but the regulators would have to justify the standards it ultimately sets, particularly if they do nothing to improve passenger comfort.
In a statement, Rep. Cohen points to the importance of standard seat dimensions to the safety of airline passengers.
“Emergency evacuation is a serious issue, as is the potential for air rage as tensions mount inside more tightly packed cabins,” explained the congressman. “In addition, doctors have warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who do not move their legs enough during longer flights.”
Getting this amendment on to a reauthorization bill is significant, as the larger bill is effectively a must-pass piece of legislation, lest the government decide to bring the FAA to a grinding halt. However, sometimes Congress is unable to agree on a reauthorization package and just passes a brief extension of the status quo. That happened last year, and the current extension is set to expire on Sept. 30.