You may see economy seats with more legroom in the future, thanks to updated plane safety rules.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will be conducting tests to see whether the current seat sizes comply with plane evacuation requirements. The tests will analyze how fast passengers can evacuate from a plane, which could result in minimum seat sizes being compulsory for the first time.
Current rules say airlines must be able to evacuate passengers within 90 seconds but do not set requirements on seat size. However, with seats getting smaller and passengers getting bigger, there could be safety implications.
The FAA will conduct evacuation tests with 720 people over 12 days in November, Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell said at a US House hearing on Thursday.
"Americans are getting bigger and seat size is important but it has to be looked at in the context of safety,” Elwell said. "We are going to get you an answer on seat pitch."
Seat pitch – the distance from one seat back to the next – on low-cost US carriers such as Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines are among the smallest at 28 inches in economy. UK airline Ryanair currently has 30 inches while EasyJet has 29 inches.
Congress passed a law in October 2018 directing the FAA to set minimum seat standards for pitch, width and length for passenger safety within one year.
"Later this year we're going to establish the necessary seat pitch, width length based on safety,” Elwell added.
In July 2018 – before the legislation was passed - the FAA said in response to a petition filed with a federal appeals court that it would not regulate seat size. Airlines margins could suffer if they had to reconfigure planes to create more space.
Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan, a Republican who is over 6-feet tall, asked at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing: "I am not exactly a dainty guy. Why don't you look around the room?"
"There's a lot of not so dainty people. I am not sure the models are being used really reflect current air travelers,” he said.
American Airlines and United Airlines are configuring many of their newest aircraft at 30 inches of seat pitch, while adding premium economy seats at 34 inches.
Earlier this month, Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Ed Bastian defended coach seats in an appearance before the Economic Club of Washington.
"The legroom is fine. What you find when you're flying coach is its more entertaining. So, you don't worry about your leg room,” Bastian said.
He added that the seats may seem smaller because planes are more crowded.