An amendment proposed by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., would have required the federal government to study the issue of shrinking legroom and allowed it to set a minimum dimension for commercial airline seats.
During the debate over the amendment in a House Transportation Committee hearing, members backed by the industry laughed the idea off.
“I see we have some different size seats here in the House,” joked Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. “Mr. Chairman has a larger seat, do you think the House Administration Committee should study seat sizes here?”
Cohen was not amused. “We’re not in airplanes that are crashing and having 180 people trying to get off at one time to get to a ramp to save their life,” Cohen replied. “This is not about seats here, Mr. Davis. … This is not a funny issue.”
Cohen said the free market won’t solve the problem because of the lack of competition in most air travel markets. “The airlines have been deregulated. They’re down to four major carriers and they do what they want to do, because they can. If you don’t live in one of the major cities in this country … you have to take what flight’s available on maybe one airline. … They talk about market conditions? There are no longer market conditions, this is a controlled industry.”
Davis dismissed Cohen’s concerns. “I think we got to the root of what this issue is. It’s your issue with the airline industry as a whole rather than this specific study,” he said. “I don’t think we should be able to require the FAA to spend taxpayer dollars on what I would consider a redundant study.”
The industry has been a good friend to Davis, forming his fifth-largest group of campaign supporters. That includes backing from airlines such as American, Continental, Delta, Jetblue, and Southwest. Altogether, air transportation PACs have given $40,000 to Davis.
The chairman of the committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., urged his members to vote against the amendment, and every member of his party did, except Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. Air transport PACs are Shuster’s largest source of campaign funding, with backing from major airlines such as American, Alaskan, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, Jetblue, and Southwest. Air transportation PACs have given $92,000 to Shuster this cycle.
Shrinking legroom is a major concern of airline passengers, and for good reason. In the 1970s, average legroom — measured as “seat pitch”— was around 35 inches; todays it is closer to 31 inches. The average width of an airline seat shrank from 18 inches to around 16.5 inches in the same timeframe.
Grassroots passengers’ rights organizations have long pushed for a reversal of this trend, arguing that it harms travelers. “Reducing the seat space even more would only expand the issue and cause greater health, safety, and comfort concerns,” said Paul Hudson, the president of FlyersRights, to Fortune Magazine.
Cohen said he plans to move the legislation as a stand-alone bill in the future.