Guest Editorial: Airline legroom and safety

Chicago Tribune
Feb. 28
Guest Editorial

You rush to the airport with barely enough time to get through airport screening. Then you board your plane, secure your overhead luggage, find your seat, settle in, and prepare to relax. But relaxing is becoming more difficult because your seat is such a tight squeeze.

Why, exactly? Because the average distance between rows of seats has been reduced from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat is now about 16 1/2 inches, down from 18.

Airlines have been shrinking seat sizes — and charging more for legroom — to boost the bottom line. How tight is too tight? Earlier this month, Congress shot down a proposal by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., to mandate minimum airline seat sizes. Some consumer groups side with Cohen in seeing this as a concern for government to solve. The airlines see it as a job for market forces — that is, the choices of customers — to address.

We take the latter view — to a point. Congress shouldn’t be in the business of dictating seat dimensions to airlines. If consumers want more room, they may have to pay for it (or take the discount and tolerate the sardine-can feeling). Or they can fly airlines that offer more generous accommodations.

End of story? Not quite. The government might have a valid regulatory role in establishing minimum seat dimensions as a matter of public safety. There are two concerns:

Does the size of a plane’s seats influence how quickly it can be evacuated in emergency landings, runway accidents, and cabin fires or other mishaps? And does shrunken legroom make passengers more susceptible to blood clots (venous thrombosis) in legs, which in extremely rare cases causes serious, even fatal embolism in the lungs?

Despite past studies, there is no clear answer to either of these safety questions.

The airlines and the FAA have performed some mock evacuations and computer simulations to determine safety. However, neither can re-create every real-life variable: type of emergency, cabin lighting, size of passengers, staff assistance, etc. The answer is … up in the air.

So, FAA, give us more data on the evacuation question. That should be an easy test to stage with multiple aircraft and several hundred FAA employees willing to be guinea pigs. A few planes, a few scenarios, a few limitations on all those exit options, and you’d have a better database.

On blood clots: The chance of developing thrombosis is remote, but anyone traveling for long periods (generally more than four hours) is at higher risk (this is also true of travel by car, bus or train). While there is no evidence that smaller seat size is a contributing factor to developing leg clots, the medical consensus is that to prevent clots, passengers should leave their seats and walk the aisles during longer flights. If small seats and narrow aisles make that harder, then theoretically the risk of clot is greater.

In sum, time to update the data on these questions and see if we all can fly safer:

—As aisles diminish and seats get smaller — and let’s leave aside for now the obesity epidemic where the fannies in those seats are getting larger — the airlines and the FAA should perform a new round of evacuation tests and computer modeling.

—The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should do further long-range surveillance of venous thrombosis following air travel.

—Some sound advice for the rest of us: Let’s get out of our seats and walk around more on long flights.