Airlines in today’s ultra- competitive industry continuously look to reduce costs while also squeezing every possible bit of revenue out of their most valuable assets, the aircraft. Revenue generation can only be achieved through enhancing increasing load factor, increasing the yield per passenger, operating as many flights as possible, and by physically adding more seats to the aircraft.
The last element has been one area where airlines have endeavoured to maximise revenue generation – but it is also an area where the industry is willing to pay for the most advanced lightweight seating systems which optimise the passenger experience at the same time. It is also an area that is coming under scrutiny.
Over the summer, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was considering establishing minimum seat and seat spacing dimensions for aircraft that operate in the US and opened a public consultation initiative to garner opinion. There’s no guarantee this process will result in any change, although the huge public response is evidence of dissatisfaction certainly with today’s economy class experience.
Why now? US Congress already required the agency to consider establishing minimum seat size standards on the grounds of safety during an aircraft evacuation. This was a condition of its 2018 reauthorisation, although the requirement came with no penalties for inaction.
Admittedly, the agency has taken some steps to address the mandate as, in addition to soliciting public feedback, it also conducted limited live evacuation testing in 2019.
The agency’s next reauthorisation bill could therefore be something to watch in 2023 especially since there are parallel efforts by a handful of US lawmakers who want future rules to reflect the realities of evacuating the elderly, children and people with disabilities.
Airlines will always provide safe seating that meets a range of budgets and special needs. There is no doubt that rules should best fit our time, but the FAA is charged with assessment on the grounds of safety, not comfort. Should critical minimum seat sizing decisions be based on anything other than safety, the immediate impact will be on airline profit which will simply translate into higher ticket prices – which is the last thing the industry needs as it exits such a difficult period in its history.