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Bad Laws May Mean Worse Airline Seats
Thursday, October 4, 2018 -- Just when you think life on the road couldn't get weirder, I give you the Congress of the United States and H.R.302, the Sports Medicine Licensure Clarity Act of 2017.
It's gonna be one of those columns, fellow flyers, so settle back in your too-narrow, knee-crunching coach seat and get ready for the bureaucracy to tell you heaven knows what about the future of comfort and safety in coach.
For our own sanity, let's dispense with the goofiest part of this tale. For reasons known only to Congress, H.R.302, a 2017 bill about sports medicine, emerged from the Senate yesterday as the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. With bicameral, bipartisan support, the former sports-medicine bill is en route to the White House and President Trump soon will affix his Sharpie signature.
H.R. 302 by any other name funds the Federal Aviation Administration for five years. That's good. It continues the current cap on passenger facility charges that airports can impose. Also good. It directs the FAA to consider better rest time for flight attendants and pilots and further strengthens cockpit doors. Yes, good. It explicitly bans in-flight use of e-cigarettes. Good. It earmarks another nearly $1 billion for the Essential Air Service, a deregulation-era program that subsidizes airlines to fly to isolated communities. Debatable. It even bars in-flight voice calls. That's your, um, call.
Another provision of H.R. 302? It bars airlines from removing you from aircraft for denied-boarding purposes. That's a reaction to the horrific 2017 incident on United Airlines when Dr. David Dao was dragged off an aircraft even though he had a legitimate ticket, boarding pass and seat assignment.
You could make the case that the Dao disaster solved itself after the airlines were excoriated in the court of public opinion. If the explicit restriction wasn't in H.R. 302, however, we wouldn't have been able to laugh uproariously at Senator John Thune (R-North Dakota), who patted himself on the back while concluding: "I think we can all agree that once you've boarded a plane, you shouldn't be kicked off until you arrive at your destination."
But while the lantern-jawed, fumble-mouthed Thune was making it safe for airlines to kick us off planes at the end of flights, H.R. 302 had a kicker. And herein lies the tale of the tape of our crummy coach airline seats.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), some other Democrats and a Republican last year introduced the so-called SEAT Act. The purpose? Force the DOT and/or FAA to regulate seat width and seat pitch on aircraft. No one thought the SEAT Act could or would pass. Yet for reasons known only to the same minds that transformed a sports-med bill into an aviation measure, H.R. 302 includes the essence of the SEAT Act. Specifically, it says "the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall issue regulations that establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats." It specifies that the FAA must set "minimums for seat pitch, width, and length."
Now I know you'd like to jump out of your too-narrow, too-tight coach seat and cheer at this news--if only you could extricate yourself from the chair in a spontaneous moment of glee. But maybe it's better if you don't stand because there may be nothing at all about which to cheer. In fact, FAA rules about seat minimums could actually make things worse.
For starters, H.R. 302 contains a key restriction, one that is needed to justify the involvement of the FAA. The soon-to-be-law instructs the FAA to act in its specific area of expertise: safety. In fact, the FAA is required to establish seat minimums "that are necessary for the safety of passengers."
The problem with that bit of legalese? The FAA has already certified the current versions of airline seating--as little as 28 inches of legroom on Spirit and Frontier and 30 inches on more mainstream carriers--are safe. (Safe, by the way, is defined as being able to evacuate an aircraft in an emergency within 90 seconds.) As recently as July, the FAA disputed claims that existing airline configurations were dangerous.
No one who's watched or modeled evacuations believes the FAA's claims, you understand. We're taller and wider. Chairs are smaller. And we have a disconcerting habit of clinging to carry-ons as we beat a retreat. The thought of us being able to evacuate a fully loaded Boeing 737Max in 90 seconds is ludicrous.
But what do you think are the chances of the FAA now saying, "Gee, well, um, on second thought, all those thousands of planes operated by the U.S. airlines really are a death trap because we haven't done our regulatory oversight." Never gonna happen. Bureaucratic honor is at stake.
Just for grins and giggles, though, let's assume the FAA has a moment of bureaucratic decency. Let's say it decides, oh, my gosh, Frontier A320s or those disreputable new American Airlines Boeing 737MAXs don't meet safety standards. What's the FAA gonna do? Order airlines to rip out a row of seats from every plane in their respective fleets? Go to five-across on narrowbody jets?
How do you think airlines would react to that? They'd scream bloody murder. They'd go to every one of the Congressmen and Congresswomen they've bought and paid for with campaign contributions and demand the FAA stop the harassment. They'll bitch, they'll moan, they'll cajole and they'll threaten.
Who do you think Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz will help? Passengers or the chief executives of American and Southwest, airlines headquartered in Texas. Delta owns Georgia's Congressional delegation. You think that Johnny Isakson, known colloquially and correctly as the "Senator from Delta," would support the FAA if it orders airlines to rip out seats?
I started some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the financial implications of an FAA decision to require carriers to remove seats from aircraft. To be honest, I ran out of envelopes.
But consider: The DOT says 850 million passengers flew U.S. airlines in 2017 and U.S. carrier revenue was $222 billion. That means the average price paid for transport by each passenger in 2017 was $261. There were about 15 million flights, according to my extrapolation of FAA stats. If you pull an average of six seats off every flight, that's roughly 90 million chairs. The nationwide load factor is currently 83.5 percent. That means around 75 million of the removed seats would have been occupied. That could be $19 billion in revenue the airlines would claim is lost because the FAA was forcing them to rip out seats.
The FAA is never gonna do it. Not during the Trump Administration. Not during a future Democratic Administration. Not now. Not in a year, the timeline H.R. 302 envisions for regulation writing. Not ever.
In fact, a worst-case reality is more likely.
In order to justify its previous decisions and knowing full well that it would be rhetorically crucified for acting against the financial interest of airlines, the FAA could codify seat pitch minimums at 28 inches. That's the inescapable logic of the current FAA "safety" standards. They've already approved Frontier and Spirit at 28 inches, so logic dictates they'd set 28 inches as the new, H.R. 302-required "minimum dimensions." That will give United and American and Delta--and yes, Southwest and JetBlue and Alaska--legal cover to shrink seat pitch to 28 inches, too.
My suggestion: Readjust your body weight in your 30-inch coach seat, keep your knees as safe as possible and prepare for even worse ahead. Aviation reauthorization bills that started as sport-medicine legislation never have brought good news for business travelers.
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