Is it Time for the Goverment to Regulate Legroom?

Christopher Elliott, who will be bringing his blog to BoardingArea.com, says the government should regulate legroom and shoulder room onboard planes.

He offers a scary quote from the ever credible FlyersRights group.

“Airlines are aggressively reducing seat and passenger space to squeeze more revenue out passengers, despite health and safety being threatened,” says Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, an advocacy group for air travelers.

And concludes that “he solution.. as simple as developing minimum seat comfort standards and enacting common-sense government regulation to enforce them.” He wants 34 inches of seat pitch, and 18 inches of width.

Now, the US average is 31 inches of pitch (distance from seat back to seat back). That’s related to legroom, but not the same thing since legroom can be increased when the seats themselves are made thinner (I do not generally find that style of seat comfortable).

This is consistent with world standards. You do have airlines like Spirit offering less legroom, just as you have low cost carriers doing the same throughout the world. But it’s not Spirit that the piece argues is a problem, it pulls an example of frustrated inflight passengers going postal from a recent Delta flight.

As for width, an Airbus narrowbody aircraft will generally give you an 18 inch seat width now. While a Boeing aircraft, same six-across seating, will give you about 17 inches. It seems the problem here is the airframe. Should we outlaw the 737?

Granted, airlines are squeezing 10-across on a Boeing 777 while they used to put in 9 seats. American has recently joined Air France and Emirates going 10-across, and still gives customers 17 inches of seat width. United’s 777s, nine across, give 18 inches.

People Choose the Product They Get, Every Day

I found this statement in the piece curious:

Truth is, as a consumer advocate, I’ve never received a request from a passenger to reduce the amount of space on a plane. No one ever asked to be squished into a seat in exchange for a deal. Airlines just assumed their customers didn’t care about comfort — something we now know isn’t entirely accurate.

Mr. Elliott may never have been asked by a customer for less room, because customers don’t need to go to him for help. But customers ask for this every day.

They buy the seats the airlines offer.. whether with 31 inches of pitch or – unless they’re a qualifying frequent flyer, for a higher price — ~ 34 inches of pitch. And they choose not to buy the seats that have extra legroom, as well.

In fact, American Airlines tried doing what Elliott wants. It was called More Room Throughout Coach. Everyone got extra legroom. They couldn’t earn a revenue premium at all, people weren’t choosing American over their competitors as a result of the offering. So they added seats back in.

I suppose you could argue that people shouldn’t have the choice, except to be more comfortable, and airlines shouldn’t have the choice either– if all of them had to offer more room, then it wouldn’t be a competitive advantage or disadvantage. That will also put air travel out of reach for some, since it will force up the price of tickets.

Regulating Seat Width and Pitch Will Increase Prices

But we shouldn’t have to pay more!” you might say. Except that you will.

Fares have gone up because flights are full, there’s demand for a supply of seats that have remained relatively stable (capacity discipline).

Roomier seats means fewer seats. And that means higher fares. You’re not just displacing seats that would otherwise go empty, you’re displacing passengers. You’re removing seats that otherwise get sold at the lowest prices on the aircraft.

The same demand for air travel, less supply, prices will rise — everyone will pay more for transportation.

There’s No “Win-Win” That the Airlines Are Ignoring

Elliott thinks that airlines can squeeze in just as many passengers while providing the kind of comfort he wants, if only they would choose the right seats.

Several seat design concepts take into account available room and offer ample comfort to air travelers. Fitting more passengers on a plane and the right to a comfortable flight “don’t need to be opposing ideas,” says Joshua Zinder, a Princeton, N.J.-based architect who specializes in sustainable design.

First of all, slimmer seats that provide more legroom in the same total footprint on the aircraft are themselves uncomfortable. You trade more room for your legs for greater discomfort in your back.

Second, Elliott’s proposed seat pitch regulations would make these seats illegal, too. That’s because seat pitch isn’t an amount of legroom, it’s a distance from seat back to seat back. Here Elliott proposes that seats maintain the same distance from seat back to seat back they currently have so that airlines can squeeze in just as many passengers, while getting extra legroom out of the seat design. But those seats will still have the same pitch, that Elliott wants to ban.

Ultimately —

  • There are different airlines offering different products.
  • And most airlines themselves offer differentiated products at different price points.

Should airlines be allowed to continue to offer these different products, that customers can choose — or do you agree with Christopher Elliott that government should force airlines to only offer the higher-end products that are more expensive?


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Trusting the same government that gave us the TSA and the “Transparent” Airfare Act of 2014 to do something like this without making it worse for everyone isn’t wise.

    My litmus test for proposing that government get involved: will it lead to more freedom or less freedom for consumers? This will lead to less, so no.

  2. Sorry Elliott, but the government needs to worry about protecting us from ebola. It also needs to figure out a method of how NOT to bring sick children into the country. Right now, “leg room” is not exactly at the top of the list, ya think?

  3. but the government needs to worry about protecting us from ebola. It also needs to figure out a method of how NOT to bring sick children into the country.

    I’m pretty sure that the government can do more than one thing at a time.

    Also, Gary, is consumer preference the only determining factor?

  4. I think I’m more concerned that BoardingArea is adding this dope Elliott to its blogger lineup. GTFOH

  5. You forgot one key point – that to get one of the aforementioned seats on the plane, apply for the Chase Ink Bold Card, currently with a 70K offer. Hurry 1 week left!!!!!

  6. This is an easy one . . . just make the airlines disclose seat pitch and width alongside the fare and other fees so passengers can compare apples to apples! Full disclosure. Then, consumers can make an informed decision!

  7. @Emily e: The government has a legitimate right to regulate activities based on laws that the Congress has passed. Child labor, for example.

    Leg room in an airplane? It’s part of interstate commerce, so they could regulate if they wanted to. My guess is there’s no current interest in doing so.

    But at some point in time safety trumps capitalism. And that’s where the government steps in.

  8. Chris – welcome to BA! You have been a great advocate for positive consumer change for many years and I look forward to reading your blog here.

    All this stupidness about govt taking away freedom misses the point. If there is a legitimate safety reason the govt should regulate and has a responsibility to do so, think safety belts in cars. If a normal tall person (6’4 or so) can’t get his legs in the allocated space then it is not safe. There are lots and lots of 6’4″ in the world, it is not the 0.05% outliers. There needs to be more reasonable seat pitches for safety reasons.

  9. Less seats = higher prices

    So whats the problem ?

    Raise the price make it more comfortable to fly.

    It’s obvious the price does not deter people from flying.

    I am not going to drive from Ft. Lauderdale to Portland, OR 4 times a year to visit the old man.

  10. If the airline lobbied got the “transparent” airfare law through congress what is the chance of this happening? I think about the same as Texas deciding to ban pick up trucks. Its an interesting discussion and I come down in favor of non-regulation but im not worried about it happening.

  11. There is room (get it?) for a requirement to disclose seating dimensions along with fares, so that customers can compare them rather than working from memory or simply guessing.

    That, in turn, would spawn differentiated coach products, even within an airline. Economy and Economy Plus might become Economy small, medium, large, and extra large. Now THAT would be a win-win.

  12. Anytime I hear the words “common-sense” and “regulation” used together, alarms start going off.

    If the .gov replaces the market in deciding what size seats should be, the end result will be seat sizes that ignore market forces, e.g. a set number of +size seats for people who have caught the obesity virus. Or a requirement that all seats must be larger and further apart. In any event, the net result will be higher prices. Regulations that ignore market forces often end up hurting those they are supposed to benefit. Is a traveler better off if he can’t afford to fly in one of the new government-approved seats?

  13. i initially got into the miles game after i ended up in the ER after an international flight in economy (fyi: i stood over 1/2 the flight in back- no matter). 6’3″, not great genetic circulation and economy= an actual danger to my life. i MS miles for intl business, but still am stuck in economy for a dangerous and horrible 5 hours domestically because i only have so many miles.

    i’m a libertarian. that said, *some* govt regulations are ok. hard to argue that economy, the majority of the seats by far, has not become too small. given the lack of competition mergers have brought to the US market, and the known health risks of sardine-esque leg room, there should be a simple, 1 paragraph, minimum standard. of what? at least 32, ideally 33″ imo. still no day at the beach for me, but realistic.

    you can say people have a choice, but if someone has to fly and they cannot afford a higher class, there is, effectively, no choice. this financial reality covers a large % of the flying public (the % of economy seats validates this). yeah, i’ve been on asia LCC’s with tiny legroom- where the average customer is 5′ 6″ or less and they’re comfortable. the avg. American is much taller and, while people can lose weight, they can’t go on a diet and lose height.

    in the post merger US, airlines are getting away with what they can. what’s next- 29″?!? given barriers to entry for new competition, and my points above, airlines need minimum requirements.

  14. “I’m pretty sure that the government can do more than one thing at a time.”

    @ Total – Apparently not.

  15. What a specious argument. Normally I oppose government regulation but this is clearly a situation where the market has failed. Consumers desperately want a product that offers what Elliot suggests, but it is not available for sale. Instead you have to choose between cramped Y and super expensive F. There is no middle ground for seat width, and people keep getting bigger. It’s not like most consumer products where you get a nice range of options to suit your budget.

    Since airline executives do not seem to get it (any more than cable companies that refuse to sell a la carte programming) regulation is needed to ensure minimum comfort.

  16. For domestic flights you still at least have the option of paying extra for more legroom (although the majority still don’t)

    There is premium economy for long haul on Euro and Asian airlines, but people just choose not to pay that premium either

  17. I guess Chris Elliott doesn’t believe the free marketplace works, and that gov’t needs to be involved in every consumer decision.

    If I buy a food item at a supermarket and don’t like it, I don’t buy it again.

    If I buy an airline ticket from an airline that has inadequate comfort, it affects my decision to fly that airline again. Basically, I’m not willing to pay very much for an uncomfortable airline seat.

    Which is why I rarely fly Spirit, and won’t fly them unless I really need to make the trip and I have no other plausible option. Others feel differently, and fly them more, while others fly them even less.

    But it would seem to me that choice is good. Elliott wants less choice, which is why his opinions are rarely wise.

  18. All the “let capitalism work!” chants are even MORE ridiculous when you’re talking about air travel. It’s an industry nearly wholly propped up by business (in both public and private sectors) travel. In other words, the idea that the people who really want legroom pay for higher classes of service is completely bogus since most of the time the traveler isn’t footing the bill him or herself. In private industry there is a better rationale for saving money (in theory anyway), but for government travel–which makes up a BIG chunk of domestic airlines’ revenue–there is no reason to save money. A government entity has a budget to spend and it doesn’t matter how it is spent because it doesn’t need to turn a profit at the end of the day. Business and First are almost completely cost prohibitive for the average leisure traveler. How many US domestic “first” seats do you think are occupied by leisure travelers who opted for a few hours of what is essentially a business class seat at 5-10 times the cost of an economy fare? The average leisure traveler doesn’t have the means to affect the business calculus of a major airline the way corporations and government agencies do.

  19. @ Andy: You don’t know what you are talking about. I fly US – Asia 20+ times a year and unless I buy tickets at least 30 days in advance premium economy is sold out.

    Gary’s argument that consumers already have a choice is laughable; Gary knows that and the airline industry knows that, too. Want to level the playing field? Full disclosure. As previously mentioned, when you get airline search results to your fare query, on the same line list seat spacing. Oh, watch airlines turn into whiny little beeches with that!

  20. I am pissed at the government for regulating that aircraft must have oxygen at every seat.

    Everyone is paying more for transportation — wouldn’t be great if we could choose whether we wanted seats with emergency oxygen for a fee?

    Let the market decide on emergency oxygen!

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