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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Are Incredibly Shrinking Airline Seats Dangerous?

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After years of significant losses and some bankruptcies, airlines are finally profitable with the help of baggage fees and increasing the number of seats on jets. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statics, fliers last summer squeezed into the least amount of personal space in the history of flying. While shrinking space on airplanes is obviously uncomfortable, a government advisory committee says it can also be dangerous to passengers’ health and safety.

Last week, the consumer advisory group set up by the Department of Transportation heard testimony from experts on the state of airline seats. In attendance were experts from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the inventor of the Knee Defender, a gadget that prevents the airline seat in front of you from reclining. Of top concern was that tight-packed seats could make it difficult for passengers to evacuate in the event of a plane crash. Charlie Leocha, the consumer representative on the committee, said the government sets standards for the conditions for dogs flying as cargo, but doesn’t dictate minimum space standards for passengers. Flight attendants also warn about an increase in air rage, especially after the implementation of checked baggage fees in 2008. More and more passengers are now carrying bags aboard, fighting for overhead bin space. Additionally, because airlines are better at managing ticket sales and filling planes, the days of the “empty middle seat” are gone. As personal space shrinks, the anger carries throughout the flight as passengers bump elbows on armrests and bang their knees against tray tables. Last year, several flights had to divert after passengers got into fights over reclining seats and lack of leg room.

There are about 50 “health events” on planes every day, about 7 percent of which require an unscheduled landing. Sometimes just reaching a passenger in need, let alone finding space to isolate and treat the person, has proved challenging. Tighter seating has also been linked to health concerns such as the risk of deep vein thrombosis, which happens when a blood clot forms in one or more of the deep veins in your body, usually in the legs. The new compact seating would also make it difficult for passengers to assume the “brace position” in preparation for a crash landing.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conducts tests including how quickly passengers can evacuate and how fast they can put on a life preserver. Before any new jet is allowed to fly, the manufacturer must prove that everybody can evacuate in 90 seconds with half the exits blocked. Carry-on baggage is strewn throughout the cabin, and the test is conducted in night-like conditions. Although the idea is to create a realistic situation, the cabin is not filled with smoke, and all passengers are physically fit, dressed in athletic clothing and know that an evacuation is coming.

According to Cynthia Corbertt, a FAA researcher, tests use wider rows than some airlines are using currently. Testing is based on planes with 31 inches of seat pitch between each row, despite planes today having much less legroom. For example, on some United Airlines jest there is 30 inches of room; Spirit Airlines offers 28 inches. The tightest economy seats on American carriers measure about 17 inches. Another factor of concern is human panic, especially passengers traveling with small children who might take extra time to ensure their children are safe before evacuating.

While some airlines, such as Southwest, will be giving passengers more than one-half inch of extra width with its newly designed aircraft seats (Southwest expects to begin its rollout in mid-2016), others have a never-ending quest for profits which just might take government regulation to help passengers breathe easier and fly safer. In the meantime, what can you do to maximize your personal space or comfort level?

If you are tall and need more room, or simply place a high importance on comfort, visit Seatguru.com to find seat pitch information by airline and aircraft along with other cabin comfort information such as cabin plans and seat width before booking your next flight.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.