Fliers are bigger, seats are smaller: Consumer groups say airline safety tests are outdated

A coalition of consumer groups says the way the federal government tests airlines' smaller seats and cramped cabins is outdated.
(Josh Noel / Chicago Tribune)

A coalition of consumer groups that has questioned the safety of the nation’s increasingly crowded airline cabins and shrinking seats is calling federal safety tests scheduled for next month outdated.

With airlines squeezing smaller seats in each cabin, federal regulations adopted last year required the Federal Aviation Administration to study whether the size of airline seats should be regulated. Tests, scheduled over a 12-day period next month, are an effort to gauge the safety of today’s tighter seats and cramped cabins.

But the consumer groups, including the National Consumers League and Consumer Federation of America, wrote to the heads of the FAA and the Department of Transportation on Monday, saying that the upcoming tests are outdated and don’t reflect the reality of most commercial flights today.

“Since the tests could be used to justify increasingly smaller airline seats — both in terms of space between rows and seat width — a rigged test could give the green light to unsafe and inhumane airline seating,” said Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of Travel Fairness Now, an advocacy group based in Washington.

Passengers and consumer groups have complained repeatedly that airlines have shrunk seat sizes and legroom during the last decade to boost profits.

But federal regulators do not impose minimum legroom or seat size on airlines. Instead, regulators determine the safety of a seat configuration by making sure that airlines offer enough space so passengers can evacuate a cabin in 90 seconds or less with half of the exits blocked. It’s a standard that has been in place since the 1990s.


The consumer groups say the FAA will test the newest airlines seats and the latest seating configurations in Oklahoma City next month, using a cabin simulator that can hold 60 passengers. The FAA will rely on 720 “demographically representative” people to act as proxy passengers in the simulator. The FAA will test to see how fast the passengers exit the cramped seats and escape the cabin, according to the consumer groups.

In a statement, an FAA spokesman said the agency is reviewing the letter.

“While today’s strong aviation safety record in the U.S. is unprecedented, we are constantly looking for ways to improve,” FAA communications manager Lynn Lunsford said. “The planned studies on seat width and distance are the first of a number of steps that will be taken as we deepen our knowledge.”

Ebenhoch and the other consumer group representatives said in the letter to federal officials that most commercial planes can hold more than twice the 60 stand-in passengers.

“The use of a simulator configured in such a way, with only a fraction of the passengers of a typical airplane, would constitute a fatal flaw in the testing model,” according to the letter.

The group said in the letter that it has not been reassured by the FAA that the tests will reflect the changes that have taken place in today’s commercial planes.

For example, the group noted that while many airline seats have shrunk in size, the average American flier has grown both taller and heavier. Because of checked luggage fees that have been added in the last decade, passengers now stuff more of their belongings in carry-on bags to avoid paying the fees, the consumer groups point out.


The consumer groups also note that passengers on today’s flights are more often distracted by smartphones and portable computers than in the past.