Airline Seat Size Issue Overblown

Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) recently announced that he planned to introduce an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill mandating minimum sizes for aircraft seat width and pitch (the distance between rows). In February, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) proposed a similar measure. As someone who has worked in and near the airline industry since 1984, my first reaction was “this is classic Capitol Hill silliness.” Taking a closer look, the proposals reflect four shortcomings about how legislators and others in Washington look at commercial aviation.

First, they never let the facts get in the way of a made-for-headlines argument. Contrary to Sen. Schumer and Rep. Cohen, U.S. airlines have not reduced seat width – they claim a reduction has “from 18 inches in the 1970s to about 16.5 inches today.” Nope. I just researched seat widths for every aircraft type in the fleets of American, Delta, United, and Southwest – more than 80% of seats flying in the U.S. today – on the authoritative website, and none of them fly seats narrower than 17 inches. Not even the smallest aircraft in the fleets of their regional partners (like American Eagle) are close to the 16.5 inches the lawmakers cite. Where do they get their tape measures? And although most airlines have reduced economy-class seat pitch to 31 or 32 inches, the three network carriers all offer the option to purchase seats with more legroom – just like Marriott gives travelers the opportunity to buy a bigger room. Isn’t choice a good thing?

Second, these proposals are proof of a double standard between the airline industry and other sectors. As I wrote in these pages last summer in the context of the DOJ inquiry into airline pricing and capacity, what’s okay in other sectors – in fact applauded as astute business practice – is seen as unacceptable for airlines. Do you think legislation to mandate minimum size for rental cars would fly? How about space between tables in restaurants?

Third, proposals like these clearly show either lack of understanding of, or disregard for, fundamental commercial reality. The hourly operating cost of a Boeing 737 would be about the same if it had 140 seats vs. 150. So under the proposed legislation, in time tickets would cost more. Another example of unintended consequences of rulemaking. And if we’ve learned anything about how most consumers buy air fares in competitive markets like the U.S., we know that price drives choice. A little history lesson: in the late 1990s, responsive to market research (particularly from business travelers), my former employer, American Airlines, voluntarily removed seats throughout the entire economy-class cabin on every one of their roughly 700 aircraft. In order to make the reconfiguration revenue-neutral, we began charging just a bit more per ticket. The marketplace responded clearly: they loved the legroom, but were not willing to pay roughly 3% more per ticket (9 bucks on a $300 fare). So after spending a lot of money on the planes and on promotion, American put the seats back on. Like United before them, they subsequently created cabins with two legroom versions, and giving consumers the option of paying more for more room has worked well.

Fourth, it’s always easier to seize on seemingly easy, visible issues than to take on the hard work of serious transport policy. I sort of understand politics, but I deeply appreciate the concept of opportunity cost – time spent on trivial matters means time not spent on important things. We ought to expect people on the Hill to focus on, say, ATC reform or figuring out a sensible way to expand much-needed airport infrastructure, especially at crowded airports. Heavy lifting, but essential.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill