Shrinking Airplane Seats Go From Annoying to Dangerous

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

The New Yorker ran a story about seat size awhile back, quoting a report by Consumer Reports consultant Bill McGee, who stated, “The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”

Using a strategy I’ve often employed to make my mishaps sound like great choices, the airlines are trying to spin this, actually bragging about their new, secretly shrinking seats.

They’re called “slim-line” seats, and they have been embraced by other airlines as well. They have less padding and weight, meaning more people can be squeezed onto each flight, no matter how sweaty and uncomfortable they become.

But this squishing is more than just anger-inducing: It might actually be dangerous.

The cutbacks on seat size and space between seats could impede emergency evacuations. One of the key tests regularly conducted by the Federal Aviation Authority determines how quickly passengers can evacuate a plane. Before new jets are given the thumbs up to fly, they have to prove that everybody can evacuate in 90 seconds, with the additional challenge of having half the exits blocked.

The seat pitch, which is the distance from a point on one seat to the exact same point on the seat in front of it, used to be 32-34 inches, and has since shrunk down to 31, which is what they’ve been using for the tests. The new, slimmer seats on some airlines (like Spirit) now have just 28 inches, and it’s this that’s worrying officials.

As the investigation continues, airlines keep up their cost-cutting, charging passengers more for what used to be standard with the ticket price. Anyone who’s flown in the past few years knows the drill: checking bags costs money (with Jet Blue, the last airline to hold out on this, finally capitulating last year), sitting closer to the front costs more, boarding sooner costs more, and even having the opportunity to choose a seat within the lowest-price section can cost more if you want to do it in advance. That’s fine when you’re traveling alone, but as someone on a budget who has to plan trips with two kids and a husband who hates flying and has really long legs, it’s a pricey new problem. And it just keeps getting worse.

The bright side, once they get the safety issue worked out? Maybe this will create a boom of people wanting to get seated next to children, since they already take up less space and will make things a little less squishy all around. Traveling with your kids could make you a hero instead of a nightmare.

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