Airline legroom targeted in federal legislation

Passengers on a flight in Las Vegas, April 18, 2016. As planes fly at record capacity and new cabin configurations squeeze in ever more passengers, airlines are, intentionally or not, nudging fliers into paying extra to avoid drawing the proverbial short straw of the middle seat. (Joe Giron/The New York Times)
Passengers on a flight in Las Vegas, April 18, 2016. As planes fly at record capacity and new cabin configurations squeeze in ever more passengers, airlines are, intentionally or not, nudging fliers into paying extra to avoid drawing the proverbial short straw of the middle seat. (Joe Giron/The New York Times)

A member of Congress wants to introduce legislation to set minimum seat sizes for airlines as an amendment to a key Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. introduced his cleverly-named "Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act" last year, but it never made it to a vote. He again aims to attach the legislation to a bill to renew the FAA's authority set to expire Sept. 30.

Cohen’s legislation would set minimums for seat size and distance between rows of seats to protect passengers’ health and safety.

“We must be certain that planes are capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency ,” Cohen said in a written statement Friday. “Emergency evacuation is a serious issue, as is the potential for air rage as tensions mount inside more tightly packed cabins. In addition, doctors have warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who do not move their legs during longer flights.”

Seat sizes and seat space in economy class have declined in the era of airline deregulation. Meanwhile, roomier seats with extra legroom and extra space are sold for higher fares in first class and comfort+ sections.

American Airlines last month took heat after saying it would squeeze some rows of seats closer together on its new Boeing 737 MAX planes. Then earlier this month, American backtracked and said it would reduce the space by 1 inch instead of 2 inches.

Airlines have said they don’t think there is an increased safety risk.

"If airlines are forced to start reducing the number of seats…. fares are going to increase and I think we're going to price out a lot of the traveling public," said Allegiant Air's director of government affairs Keith Hansen during a hearing on the issue in 2015.

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