Cramped Legroom On Flights Unlikely To Change, Despite Congressional Mandate Frequent flyers have often complained of shrinking legroom on flights. Now Congress has ordered the FAA to establish minimum seat widths and pitch — but that's unlikely to result in more space.
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Cramped Legroom On Flights Unlikely To Change, Despite Congressional Mandate

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Cramped Legroom On Flights Unlikely To Change, Despite Congressional Mandate

Cramped Legroom On Flights Unlikely To Change, Despite Congressional Mandate

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For years, airline passengers have complained of being squeezed into ever-narrower seats with shrinking legroom. Now a new law requires the Federal Aviation Administration to set a minimum size for seats and legroom. Problem is the law doesn't specify what the minimum size or spacing should be. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Flight 104...

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: More people are flying today than ever before. When adjusted for inflation, airfares are at historic lows. Technology is helping airlines lose fewer bags and improve their on-time performance. But if there's one thing that air travelers still love to complain about, it's the size of economy-class seats. Thirty-year-old Jose Maldanado, who is 6-foot-3 and flew to Chicago from Miami, says it's not just that there's no legroom.

JOSE MALDANADO: There's no room for your feet. You can't put your feet nowhere. You'd be like, not pigeon-toed, but you're facing, like, duck feet, sideways, and that hurts your ankles at the same time while you're sitting down.

SCHAPER: Six-foot-two Senthil Sivakumar of Austin says his knees are always pressing right up against the seat in front of him.

SENTHIL SIVAKUMAR: You know what I pray every time - is that the guy in front of me does not lean back because that's when it truly is hell.

SCHAPER: Even a more diminutive Nikki Devereaux of Rockford, Ill., would like a little more room.

NIKKI DEVEREAUX: You know, sometimes your hips don't fit all up in the seat too much. Your thighs are a little bit wider than I guess the little area that they put you in. That's my complaint (laughter).

SCHAPER: By packing in seating rows more tightly, airlines can cram more seats onto a plane and sell more tickets. They argue it allows them to keep fares low and remain profitable. But Paul Hudson of the group flyersrights.org says the shrinking seats and tightening pitch, which is the distance between your seat and the one in front of you, not only makes flying uncomfortable, but it poses a safety hazard.

PAUL HUDSON: Without proper regulation, I'm afraid it's going to get worse and worse until there are real disasters.

SCHAPER: But this summer, the FAA rejected FlyersRights' petition asking the agency to set a minimum seat size and pitch, ruling that the smallest space airlines currently use - a mere 28 inches on some carriers - is roomy enough to allow for the safe evacuation of a plane in 90 seconds or less. Enter Congress, which included a provision in the recently passed FAA Reauthorization Act ordering the agency to establish minimum seating dimensions. But Hudson says that law doesn't actually mandate the FAA to give airline passengers more room.

HUDSON: It could potentially freeze things where they are or even make it worse.

MARISA GARCIA: It is unlikely that the industry will be pushed to a reversal.

SCHAPER: Marisa Garcia used to design aircraft interiors and now writes about the aviation industry.

GARCIA: And the reason for that is that it would be an extremely uncompetitive situation for them.

SCHAPER: Forcing the airlines with the least legroom, like deep discounters Spirit and Frontier, to yank out rows of seats to meet any new rule could cost them millions and drive up fares. And Garcia says the Trump administration is calling on federal agencies to repeal regulations, not add to them.

GARCIA: It's that kind of a what will the FAA do? Do they follow one mandate to reduce regulation or another mandate to increase regulation?

SCHAPER: That's why Garcia and others expect the FAA will not give air travelers any more space or legroom anytime soon. But at least it might finally stop the shrinking of airline seats. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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