August 19, 2019

Whitehouse, Langevin, Cicilline Call for Swift Enactment of Consumer Protections from Ever-Shrinking Airplane Seats

Warwick, RI – At the height of the busy summer travel season, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Congressman Jim Langevin, and Congressman David N. Cicilline today called on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make air travel safer and more comfortable for passengers by setting a reasonable minimum size and pitch for airplane seats.  The members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation joined with airport officials to make the announcement at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick.

Whitehouse advocated for a provision signed into law last fall that directed the FAA to propose a minimum seat width and minimum distance between rows of seats.  The FAA must meet the requirement by October of this year, according to the law.  The agency has indicated that it will take initial steps to fulfill the requirement by later this year. 

“Airlines have increasingly turned to cramming additional seats on board as a way to grow profits at the expense of the comfort and even the safety of passengers,” said Whitehouse, who is also a sponsor of legislation reintroduced earlier this month to create an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights.  “Congress has directed the FAA to make flying a better experience for consumers by setting a reasonable minimum for the size and pitch of airplane seats.  We look forward to the FAA following through on this requirement.”

Langevin included important consumer protections for air travelers in law by requiring the establishment of an Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights and a review of regulations regarding the assistance that airline and airport personnel must provide to passengers with disabilities.  Langevin has also introduced legislation to establish additional protections and close service gaps for disabled airline passengers.

“I want to thank Senator Whitehouse for his leadership in making air travel safer and more comfortable,” said Langevin. “It is past time for the FAA to address the safety issues inherent with increasingly cramped aircraft seating. I believe all Americans deserve equal access to the skies, and I will continue to do everything I can to make air travel accessible to all.” 

“As the October deadline approaches for the FAA to come up with measurement requirements for airline seats, I’m proud to stand with my colleagues in calling for their regulations to address the safety hazards created by smaller and less spacious seating,” Cicilline said. “It’s time for the Administration to realize that this about much more than just being able to stretch out your legs. This decision will have a serious impact on airline safety for years to come, and I hope that the FAA is rendering their decision with that in mind.”

Average seat pitch in coach has narrowed from about 35 inches to 31 inches in recent years, according to the travel website SeatGuru.  Seat pitch is as low as 28 inches on some carriers.  Average seat width has shrunk from 18 inches to 17 inches or less. In addition to creating an uncomfortable experience for consumers, cramped seats can make it more difficult for passengers to quickly exit the aircraft.

Current U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations require that passengers be able to exit a plane within 90 seconds in an emergency.  The DOT regulations have not been updated since 1990.  The Inspector General at the U.S. DOT recently launched an audit to reassess these evacuation standards, siting changes in consumer behavior and smaller seat sizes.

“The issues of seat size and seat pitch are not just about comfort,” said Lori Bassani, National President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.  “There are significant safety issues that deserve to be examined and that is why this provision had virtually unanimous bi-partisan support.  The FAA needs to stop dragging its feet and conduct this much needed study now.  As the first responders responsible for emergency evacuations we need to know the results.”


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