Are Economy Seats Too Small? The FAA Will Weigh In

The FAA has announced plans to carry out evacuation tests to determine the safe minimum seat pitch on passenger aircraft. There are currently no limits on seat size, which has raised issues when it comes to safety certification.

A Spirit Airlines Jet
US airlines vary massively in terms of economy class leg room. Photo: JTOcchialini via Flickr

The FAA will be running evacuation tests with 720 people over the space of 12 days in November, according to reports by Reuters.

Congress passed legislation which requires the FAA to set minimum seat pitch guidelines back in October 2018.

Now the FAA has arranged tests to determine minimum standards for seat pitch, which is the distance between the back of one seat to the one behind. The tests will also seek to set minimum figures for seat width and length, to ensure all carriers are able to meet safety requirements.

The FAA’s Deputy Administrator, Dan Elwell, talked to the U.S. House of Representatives about the tests, saying,

“Americans are getting bigger and seat size is important but it has to be looked at in the context of safety.”

United Economy Plus
The average legroom on US airlines is 31 inches. Photo: United Airlines

As it stands, FAA rules state that aircraft should be able to evacuate all passengers within the space of 90 seconds. November’s tests will seek to determine exactly how fast aircraft can be evacuated with certain seating dimensions.

Legroom – an ever-present concern

Legroom varies significantly between carriers and seating classes.

In the 2018 Condé Nast Traveler rankings, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines emerged as the top three airlines for economy class legroom, with 33-34 inches, 32 inches and 32 inches respectively.

In contrast, Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines were among the worst-performing US airlines when it comes to legroom, with just 28 inches. That’s a whole three inches below the US average of 31 inches.

As we’ve previously mentioned, a lack of legroom isn’t always a bad thing. The more seats an airline fits into their aircraft, the less fuel they burn per seat. While it’s not a positive for passengers, it is a positive for the environment and the airline’s fuel expenditure.

Legroom in economy class

While flying on an aircraft with little leg room is bearable on short journeys, it can really take its toll on long haul flights. Airlines are aware of this, and some are making an effort to increase legroom in their economy class cabins for the sake of customer comfort.

Delta Air Lines economy class
A lack of legroom can actually be a safety hazard when an aircraft is being evacuated. Photo: Delta News Hub via Flickr

Earlier in the year, Simple Flying reported on rumors that American Airlines was looking to revamp its economy class.

Part of this revamp would involve making room for a little extra legroom. However, American Airlines has also been criticized for what it calls ‘Project Oasis’, which involves retrofitting a number of the airline’s fleet with even less seat pitch.

Specifically, the airline’s Boeing 737-800s would be fitted with an extra 12 seats, while its Airbus A321s would be fitted with an extra 5. Thankfully for passengers, Project Oasis has been postponed.