New York senator seeks to amend FAA funding bill

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For the second time in as many months, a federal lawmaker has pushed for minimum seat size standards on commercial planes to combat the airline industry’s efforts to shrink leg and hip room on U.S. flights.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is the latest lawmaker to introduce an amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration funding bill, calling for the FAA to adopt minimum seat sizes. Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., and Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., offered up a similar amendment in January but it was rejected in a subcommittee.

Schumer says the average legroom on airline seats has shrunk from about 35 inches in the 1970s to nearly 31 inches today, with seat width narrowing from 18.5 inches in the 1990s to about 17 inches.

The federal government doesn’t impose a minimum seat size. Instead, federal law allows airlines to squeeze as many seats in a cabin as the companies want as long as the passengers have enough room to escape the cabin in an emergency within 90 seconds.

The airline industry, as expected, opposes any seat standard, saying the FAA already imposes requirements based on safety and that market forces determine how much legroom passengers want to pay for.

“As with any commercial product or service, customers vote every day with their wallet,” said Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation’s biggest carriers.

There are a few drawbacks to Schumer’s proposal, including the likelihood that if the FAA adopts new standards, the federal agency would give airlines several years to install the roomier seats, according to industry experts.

Also, if airlines were required to reduce the seat totals in each cabin to allow more legroom, airlines would most likely raise ticket prices to make up for the loss of total passengers per plane.

“If there are fewer seats on the plane, the prices are going to be higher,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the trade publication Airline Weekly. “In the end, you are going to get some resistance not only from airlines but from some consumer groups.”