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Less Legroom in the Air, Less Safety

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Airline passengers already know that ever-shrinking seats can leave them feeling cranky and cramped. They might nonetheless think of reduced legroom -- an industry-wide trend that has produced a remarkable run of profitability for U.S. airlines -- as a fair tradeoff for an affordable fare. But what if, in addition to threatening one’s sanity and aching back, cramped airline seats threatened one’s safety? It stands to reason, after all, that it would be harder to evacuate a plane designed for 180 passengers when it's carrying 195.

America's airplane manufacturers and airlines tend to respond by pointing out that their planes are only certified to fly after meeting U.S. and European safety regulations. But that's not saying much. Existing protocols aren't nearly as rigorous as they ought to be.

Airlines are asked to prove they can fully evacuate any aircraft with more than 44 passenger seats in 90 seconds or less (on the understanding that a fire can spread through a cabin in two minutes). That goes for new aircraft as well as older models that have undergone design changes -- such as adding seats and reducing legroom -- that may affect their ability to evacuate.

So far, so good. But consider the most notable recent evacuation drill organized by an airline. In 2006 Airbus had to demonstrate that it could evacuate 853 passengers, 18 cabin crew, and two pilots from its then new A380 Superjumbo jet. It was a curious exercise. Participants, according to press reports, were split between Airbus employees, members of a local gym (undoubtedly fitter than the average air passenger), and Lufthansa crew members. In the video, nobody seems to be overweight, disabled, or elderly (much less panicked at the possibility of impending death). There are also no children, no arguments, no pushing, much less purses, suitcases, backpacks or duty-free bags packed with bottles of Johnny Walker.

No surprise, the plane was evacuated in time, and the plane received its certification.

That was good for Airbus, but it's fair to wonder whether it was good for passengers. After all, the drill bore almost no relationship to the messiness of a typical flight in 2006. And today's flying environment is even more crowded -- as underscored by the chaotic and slow evacuations that have taken place after several recent crashes (none involving an A380).

On international flights, duty free purchases and carry-on baggage are more common than ever. But the biggest change is more seats, more people, and less legroom. On American Airlines, for example, economy class seat pitch -- the distance between a point on a seat and the same one in front of it that’s a rough approximation of legroom -- went from 32-35 inches in 2002, to 30-32 inches in 2014. Budget carrier Spirit has shrunk the pitch to as low as 28 inches.

But in the United States, at least, the Federal Aviation Administration’s evacuation tests don’t account for drastically reduced seat pitches -- a point made during a hearing on Tuesday in front of the Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection. Cynthia Corbett, a human factors researcher at the FAA, which sets the parameters for evacuation tests, told the committee that the “default” pitch used in their studies, including evacuation studies, is 31 inches.

Why? “We just haven’t considered other pitches, in general.” That seems like a potentially reckless oversight.

Of course, there’s more to airline safety than evacuations. During the same hearing, a representative from American Airlines’ flight attendant union indicated that tighter seats make it more difficult for passengers to assume a brace position (head down, hands beneath the legs) in the event of a hard landing or crash. She also noted that there was anecdotal evidence that passenger air rage was increasing as personal space on planes was shrinking, posing a safety and security risk to other passengers.

Those trends are unlikely to reverse. Air passengers like budget airlines and cheap fares, and airlines have learned that there’s record profits to be had in obliging them. At Tuesday’s hearing, Keith Hansen, director of government affairs for budget carrier Allegiant Air, put it simply: “The only way we can offer a low airfare ... is to increase the seating density so we can divide the cost of operating a flight among the greatest number of people possible.”

That might be true, but it's the responsibility of aviation regulators to determine whether that excellent business model is safe for fliers. And if it turns out that reduced seat pitches are an impediment to a safe evacuation, then the FAA should fix a minimum legroom standard that can keep passengers and crew safe and sane. The skies have never been more crowded; it’s time for air safety regulations to reflect that fact.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net