Robert Silk
Robert Silk
At the Airline Passenger Experience Expo in Singapore last October, I was treated to a most illuminating sales pitch from a rep for an airplane seat-making company.

Sitting in the display of seat rows the vendor had set up, the salesman explained that the rows were just 28 inches apart. But, he said, because of the way the seats were designed to conform to the human body, that 28 inches of space, known in industry parlance as pitch, really felt like 30 inches.

I didn't necessarily disagree with the vendor. In truth, I'm not sure I'm well enough versed to immediately tell the difference between 28 inches of pitch and 30 inches, though I imagine it would be fairly noticeable if I had the opportunity to sample both offerings one after the other on a lengthy flight.

Surely, flyers on Spirit Airlines, with its U.S. airline industry-worst 28 inches of pitch on standard narrowbody seat rows, feel more cramped after four or five hours than flyers on a legacy airline such as American, which more typically offers 31 inches of pitch in economy class.

What I did know as I sat in that exposition hall was how happy I was that I wasn't going to have to sit in that seat, with its 28 inches of pitch that felt like 30, for the following five hours, three hours or even one hour. I could get out of that cramped seat and walk out into the Singapore sunshine anytime I wanted.

Few would disagree, I'm confident, that economy airline travel on most U.S. carriers isn't especially comfortable, particularly if you're traveling more than a couple of hours.

And increasingly, airlines are perfecting ways to reconfigure planes to squeeze more money out of every last inch of space. Deploying thinner, more streamlined seats, such as one finds in the coach cabins of most new or newly reconfigured commercial aircraft, is one way to do that. So is squeezing the space between rows. Increasing the number of seats per aisle from nine to 10 on Boeing 777s, as many airlines are now doing, is another way to turn space into extra dollars, even if it's at the expense of passenger comfort.

Of course, airlines are doing much more than bottom feeding. They're also diversifying products so they can upsell to those willing and able to pay more. With offerings such as United's Economy Plus and Alaska's Premium Class, airlines can sell an extra 3 or 4 inches of legroom in the exit rows and at the front of the main cabin for perhaps $80 more than a standard coach seat.

Carriers are bridging the gap between economy and business class on international flights with premium economy cabins. And business- and first-class sections themselves, especially on long-haul routes, have never been better.

With its growing product stratification, the airline industry is mirroring other U.S. industries and American society at large. The top 1% of U.S. earners have increased their share of the nation's income by nearly two-and-a-half times since the late 1970s, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Equitable Growth. Businesses, and even government entities, have shrewdly adapted as a result of that change.

In my home area of South Florida, for example, commuters who can afford it can speed their ride home along crowded I-95 between Miami and Fort Lauderdale by availing themselves of express lanes that cost as much as $10.50 one way.

Meanwhile at Universal Orlando, similar to other theme parks, families who can afford more than the standard $155 admission price per person can plop down an extra $65 per person for shorter lines. Add $20 on top of that price and you can get unlimited access to those shorter lines.

Unlike theme parks, however, air travel is often a necessity. So unlike longer roller coaster lines for those who can't afford a fast pass, diminishing offerings in legroom and seat width have spawned calls from politicians for regulation.

Last year, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), who is now the Senate minority leader, and Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) introduced similar measures in the Senate and House that would have required the DOT to establish minimum standards for both pitch and seat width. Their efforts failed, but Cohen and Kinzinger have already announced they'll be filing a similar bill this year.

In their press release about the bill, Cohen and Kinzinger repeated last year's assertions that squeezing the personal space of passengers could slow evacuation times in the event of a crash. In addition, they expressed concern about the possibility that the ever-tighter confines on modern planes can cause deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the limbs that often does not manifest symptoms but can, in the most severe cases, be fatal.

"The time to examine the safety implications of smaller airplane seats is now, not after some future tragedy," Cohen said last month in prepared remarks.

Not surprisingly, the airlines sharply oppose any attempt to set minimum seat widths and minimum pitch. The market, not regulators, should determine such minimums, they said. Meanwhile they note that plane tickets, adjusted for inflation, are cheaper than they've ever been.

"There's no evidence of a safety issue with current seat dimensions, and it's nearly impossible to compare to current seats because of different materials and seat formations used now vs. 20 years ago," the trade organization Airlines for America told me in a recent email.

Beyond the rhetoric of the opposing sides of this debate, some science already exists as it relates to thrombosis. Meanwhile, the FAA and the consumer advocacy group Flyers Rights are already battling in the courts over the question of evacuation safety.

A peer-reviewed 2006 study of 1,906 patients, of whom 233 had traveled for more than four hours in the preceding eight weeks, found that traveling in general doubled the risk of thrombosis. The risk of suffering thrombosis as a result of flying, the authors concluded, is similar to the risk of traveling by car, bus or train.

Other studies, the authors noted, have found an increased risk of thrombosis after flying vs. other modes of travel, and they left open the possibility that the low oxygen levels present in pressurized cabins could be a cause.

That study was partially funded by the World Health Organization (WHO), which notes on its own website that prolonged travel of various sorts increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis two- to threefold. But though it might seem logical to assume that the tighter one's confines during a trip, the greater the chance of thrombosis, the WHO makes no such mention.

For its part, the FAA rejected a 2015 request by Flyers Rights to set standards for seat width and pitch. That spawned a Flyers Rights appeal to the D.C. circuit court, where it remains active.

On the issue of evacuation times, the FAA asserts that aircraft makers have passed required safety certification tests for planes with pitches of 28 inches and 29 inches. However, Flyers Rights remains unsatisfied, since the FAA has not released the details nor results of such demonstrations, citing proprietary rights of the manufacturers.

All of which begs a question: Since there isn't much evidence that squeezing aircraft configurations, in and of themselves, has increased the risk of thrombosis clots, and since we just don't know for sure yet how narrow seats have to get or how close the rows must be before evacuation times are affected, is further regulation needed?

To that question, Jason Rabinowitz, data research manager for the flight amenities website Routehappy, offered me an interesting answer. Telling regulators to set minimum standards for pitch and seat width, he opined, feels like overreach. But anytime an airline treads new low-end ground, for example, moving seat rows even closer together, certification with safety evacuation tests should be required.

I'm inclined to agree. JetBlue offers the most legroom in coach of any U.S. airline. And until the recent Alaska/Virgin America merger, it had grown in 16 years from a brand new carrier to the country's fifth largest, proving that there's still plenty of market reward for offering a more comfortable economy experience.

But I'm also a skeptic. So manufacturer and government assertions about the success of safety tests simply aren't enough. As airline cabins get ever tighter, the consumer, at the very least, should be entitled to full transparency.


Correction: JetBlue grew to be the U.S.'s fifth-largest carrier before the Virgin America-Alaska merger. A previous version of this column had the wrong ranking.

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