MIAMI — According to an interview with the Associated Press, New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer wants the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to regulate the size of airline seats. Schumer’s statements come just two weeks after Democrats Steve Cohen (Tennessee) and Janice Hahn (California) attempted to append similar legislation onto the FAA re-authorization bill in the House of Representatives.
Seat size regulations would be bad for consumers
In his interview, Schumer (correctly) noted that average seat pitch for airlines has dropped down from 35 inches in the 1970s to 31 inches today, with some airlines such as ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC) Spirit Airlines dipping as low as 28 inches in bare bones economy. But these raw figures are misleading; as today’s streamlined (occasionally slimline) seats offer more effective legroom for the consumer at any given pitch than the bulky seats of the 1970s. So, the effective reduction in legroom has been closer to 1.5-2.5 inches, still tangible but not as alarming.
But this is exactly what U.S. airline customers want, or more precisely, this is exactly what U.S. customers buy. A substantial majority of U.S. airline passengers simply want the lowest priced ticket possible regardless of the comfort, and have been voting that way with their dollars for the last 25 years. The airlines are simply responding to the preferences that these passengers (in aggregate) signaled.
On occasion, critics claim that these preferences are merely customers being duped (i.e. passengers that buy Spirit Airlines expecting Southwest’s seat sizes). Admittedly, there is a portion of the market that experiences this, particularly thanks to online travel agencies (OTAs). But the fact remains that Spirit and Allegiant get millions of repeat customers annually, people who fly them in spite of their smaller seats.
And the net effect of reducing seat counts by regulating seat size would be to increase the price of flying, which would not be giving customers what they want. Passengers that want expanded seat pitch can simply buy up to a premium economy or expanded legroom seat, which is offered by pretty much every airline, including the ULCCs.
Regulating seat width is an even dumber idea, as a limit set at 18.5 inches would force Boeing 737 aircraft to be flown in a five-abreast configuration. This would make these aircraft uneconomical overnight (exacerbated by a forced increase in pitch), and since Boeing 737s are something like 30% of the U.S. passenger fleet, would create a substantial economic turmoil. At best, the airlines would be forced to replace the 737 with the Airbus A320, which would harm Boeing and kill thousands of jobs in the U.S. (which will represent 15-20% of the 737 MAX’s customer base). Between the loss of jobs and increased ticket prices, regulating seat size would directly harm U.S. consumers and the American economy.
Not even justified by safety concerns
One justification that is sometimes thrown out for regulating seat size is safety, more specifically the idea that tight seat pitch could cause problems in case of an evacuation. But this worry is likely overblown, as the aircraft in question are separately certified for evacuation by the FAA and its European equivalent. The maximum passenger capacity for each aircraft is already set by these government agencies, so as long as an airline’s configuration is under that maximum limit, any safety concerns are overblown. And lo-and-behold, Spirit’s Airbus A320s (the most crowded airplanes in the US) are configured for 178 passengers (under the 180-passenger limit). Safety is a non-issue when it comes to the current seat size at US airlines.
More aviation involvement for Schumer
The effort to regulate seat sizes is just the latest involvement in the U.S. airline industry for Schumer, who has served in the Senate since 1999 (and in the House for 18 years before that). Schumer notably helped JetBlue Airways get off the ground back in 2000, pulling strings to get the (then) start-up airline a favorable slot portfolio at restricted New York JFK airport. Over the years, Schumer has maintained his involvement in the airline industry, usually lobbying in favor of JetBlue.
Schumer also tends to weigh in on broader aviation issues, usually with a (theoretically) pro-consumer bent. For example, he called for a federal investigation into airfares back in winter 2014 amid falling fuel prices (spoiler alert: air fares have indeed fallen over the last year since Schumer asked for the investigation thanks to natural market forces). But in practice, his forays into aviation—outside of slot-related deal making—usually are the kind that will do more harm than good to consumers—let alone airlines—and this effort to regulate seat pitch is more of the same.