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Do you have the right to space on an airplane?

The title here is also the title of an opinion piece by travel consumer advocate Christopher Elliott in the Washington Post. He argues that space within and around seats has shrunk so much that it has become a safety issue, as well as a health one. Among other things, he notes that even animals in the hold have government-mandated space standards, while humans do not. He does admit to being part of an organization advocating for government regulation, and even supports the safety argument by likening the treatment of airline economy-class passengers today to that of steerage class victims on the Titanic.

But, as one of the commenters says, it will probably take a major disaster -- one in which all business class and many economy comfort class passengers survive while most economy class passengers perish, unable to get out of their seats and reach the exits in time -- before the government gets involved.

Besides agreeing with his arguments, I am posting this because it brings some fresh perspective to the issue of shrinking seat sizes. Comments following the argument provide still more perspectives, some of which I had not considered before. What are your thoughts?

Posted by
4689 posts

The immediately expressed concern in the recent completely successful evac at Las Vegas was not the spacing of the seats, but the passengers who spent time attempting to get luggage from the overhead bins blocking the aisles.

Posted by
1064 posts

That example does not disprove the Titanic analogy. Hopefully the safety issue will never be tested.

Posted by
6642 posts

my understanding is that the FAA does require evacuation testing of all aircraft. I think it is the human factor, not the space factor that will cause a disaster. Some people just can't or won't move fast enough. But I'm all for more space. However, it appears most people are willing to accept less space for lower fares.

Posted by
118 posts

My opinion:
The tight quarters is the cause to many "fights" on airlines I have traveled on, invasion of your little bit of space.
Larger then life seat mates expanding beyond their seats and a 9 hour flight ahead of you.
Sleeping pill as the answer to the uncomfortable conditions, and now you are trapped as they snooze away in the aisle seat.
Child and mother in same seat, you get partial responsibility for holding the child as you are seated with them.
People in your window seat because they don't want their middle seat.

I agree with the health hazard perspective and would like to add those traveling with wounds can't help but contaminate you as we are crammed together. Happened to me on an American airlines flight, large diabetic gentleman in middle seat had to have the arm rests up so he could fit between me and another poor soul. I was in the window seat and had to sit sideways in my seat, his legs could not be put together due to his size. So the leg that rested against mine oozed fluids from open wounds onto my leg. He had ace bandages on but they were saturated and the flight attendants did notice and offered him paper towels. Flight was full, so 8 hours of this almost gave me mental issues as well as physical. He took a sleeping pill and could not be woke up for 4 hours.

I could go on and on, but I agree they are killing us with lack of space.

Posted by
2320 posts

The thought of being trapped next to someone with oozing wounds for any length of time would absolutely freak me out--what is WRONG with people? If I had such a condition I would buy 2 seats to ensure no one had to deal with my physical issues, and if I couldn't afford that I wouldn't be travelling.

I'm tall and average-sized and fit fine in my seat, though it's hard to stretch out my legs enough to get truly comfortable. Economy is my only option at this point so I just endure it.

Posted by
2258 posts

People are getting what they vote for with their dollars. Of course we would all like more space, but how many people are willing to pay for it? Not too many, I think, since it seems most people go to great lengths to find the cheapest seat they can find.

The concept of a right to certain airline space is a little silly to me. I would rather let people vote with their dollars than have the government jump into this.

Posted by
1064 posts

Keith, there is a lot of historical information in print and on the web about the Titanic and social class distinctions. One I found most interesting was the 1986 article, “Social Class and Survival on the. S.S. Titanic” in the journal Social Science and Medicine by Wayne Hall, then of the University of Western Australia.

After consulting numerous historical records, the author concluded that the layout of the ship and a policy of looking after the first and second class passengers (both of which favor business class in airliners today) were the top two reasons for a higher rate of deaths among those in third class.

Sorry, the link I posted earlier leads to the journal website, so I deleted that link. But a pdf of the article is available online if you google Titanic and Social Class.

Posted by
27745 posts


was that paper corroborated by peer review and subsequent research?

Posted by
1994 posts

I believe that is a peer-reviewed journal. And I'm wondering who would volunteer for a study to corroborate the findings. Anyone out there?

Posted by
1064 posts

Elliott's point with the Titanic reference was that it took a major disaster to force action on dangers with passenger ships that were ignored by governments and the transportation industry of that era. He argues that the airline industry and the U.S. government are doing the same today. Are they?

BTW, this Christopher Elliott is a travel writer for a lot of prestigious publications, not the funny guy with the same name on "Idiots Abroad."

Posted by
5586 posts

The problem is not with the airlines, not with the government, nor with regulations. The problem is with people. Us. Well, not me, of course - it's with the rest of you.

There's no mystery here and it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. The airlines have figured out that the #1 motivator and differentiator for consumers is price. Actually, it's the #1, #2, #3, #4 though #100 issue. They're just giving you what you keep asking for.

You could ask them to please accept lower profit margins, or ask them to give you more space just to be nice, but I wouldn't bet my lunch money on them doing that. They make the seats smaller because that's what they have concluded you actually do want (rather than what you say you want). You want the absolute cheapest flight possible? Fine, they'll give you that. They've been doing that for a while, and you keep buying cheap tickets from those airlines. You keep giving them the green light to continue doing what they've been doing. I think you know the definition of insanity, right?

Anyone who thinks the government is going to regulate personal space and seat dimensions is, with all due respect, a fool. Not gonna happen in any of our lifetimes. Christopher Elliott can cry "Titanic" all he wants and maybe that'll get him clicks and keep his paymasters happy, but it's not going to get you a seat wider than 17 inches on that flight to Milan.

Do you have a choice? Sure you do. You could pay a bundle for Business Class to buy your way out of misery (this is the future of America - it's everywhere - stuck in traffic on the way to the airport? Buy your way into the "HOV" lane. Hate the long TSA lines? Buy a pass to one of the now several expedited options available..). There are other ways - shop around for airlines that don't squeeze their passengers (physically) quite so much. Shop for your flights using seat comfort as the primary criteria, rather than the lowest bid.

Me, I refuse to fly in a seat that's going to leave me miserable immediately after sitting down, and counting the minutes and hours until I can get out. I fly a fair amount for work these days, and I choose an airline that has decent seat comfort. There are other airlines that charge a few bucks less for the same route, but their seats are cramped and I want no part of them. For personal flights, I'll either save up enough FF miles to claw my way into business class, or will pay to sit in a better seat, or I won't go. I've been on my last 15 hour torture flight, I'm done with that. Yes, I love to travel as much as any of you. I'll tough it out in a crappy seat for a short domestic flight if I have no other option, but I'm through with clamping myself in for 10 hours or more of misery. There are other options - and for me, paying more or just staying home are better options.

Keep giving the airlines your money for a miserable experience, and you can expect more of the same. The seats continue to get smaller and smaller. Stop encouraging them. They'll notice eventually.

Posted by
1217 posts

For an aircraft with more than about 40 passengers to be certified for commercial use in a given configuration in the USA, the rule is that you must be able to evacuate the aircraft in 90 seconds or less using only half the emergency exits. As a bonus, there will be light debris in the plane to trip up demonstration passengers. Found some video from the Airbus 380 certification demonstration:

Granted, the airlines don't just use anyone off the street. Most of the people in the demonstration are probably a mix of Airbus employees, flight attendants, and flight attendant trainers. But even Spirit and their awful seat pitch had to pass it because they were making a significantly different seat configuration that others were at the time.

Posted by
1324 posts

" I choose an airline that has decent seat comfort."

Can you give us the results of your research and let us know which airlines are better?

Posted by
7205 posts

And of course in a REAL disaster all passengers know to immediately put tray tables up and return their seats to an upright position, right????? Of course NOT! There is no "emergency disaster test" that can accurately mimic a disaster simply because disasters are not "planned"...they are impromptu.

I've thought for a long time that current passenger configurations are not safe for disaster evacuations. Unfortunately Mr. Shmuck share holder and major political donor have more clout and money than me.

Posted by
6871 posts

For what it's worth, I don't think that seat configuration is the key variable in predicting a safe evacuation...what about the characteristics of the passengers themselves? It gets much more complicated than just space - it's trying to predict how a random group of untrained people will respond. Every flight has a mix of random passengers, some of whom (due to various physical, physiological, behavioral, or cultural factors) could have an adverse affect on the time it would take to evacuate everyone out of the plane...small children and infirm/disabled passengers who cannot move quickly or at all without assistance; passengers with little flight experience who would be really caught of guard; passengers in poor health; passengers who don't speak English; passengers who fail to follow crew directions, to name a few.

That's probably why the safety argument focused narrowly on seat pitch/space is really a weak attempt to try to appeal to airlines to make flights more comfortable. Their economics go against this notion, so absent of effective public pressure (there hasn't been any, except just complaining) and regulation, they are not going to change.

Posted by
5586 posts

Can you give us the results of your research and let us know which airlines are better?

Well, in the case of the route I fly regularly (Seattle to the SF Bay area), IME Alaska Airlines coach seats are perfectly comfortable. I've flown the same planes to and from Hawaii several times (6+ hours) and had no complaints about seat comfort or space. In fact, I'm going to fly the same seat on the same plane from Seattle to Florida - and back again the same day - next week to earn enough miles to qualify for the airline's basic "elite" level for the next year (they had a sale on flights, and while it may be crazy, I can justify it since I'll enjoy the benefits all next year - I know these seats well, and I'll be OK in one for 10 hours round trip - although I'm sure I'll be happy to get off he plane when it returns me to Seattle after a long day crossing the country from corner-to-corner - twice). Granted, these flights are not the same as a 15-hour flight to the other side of the world (which I've done in coach enough), and regrettably Alaska Airlines doesn't fly to Europe (at least not yet - they're doing well and expanding - so one can hope!). But to me, the Alaska Airlines coach seats are clearly and immediately noticeably a lot more comfortable than the coach seats on United I've experienced. I know, that doesn't help you going from the US east coast to Europe.

I will say that the last time I flew to Europe in coach I was on Lufthansa, and the seats were absolutely horrible - as soon as I sat down, I was uncomfortable and worried (and that was before the TWO babies in the row behind me started screaming and didn't stop until we were in Frankfurt...). Those Lufthansa seats were awful, what a miserable flight that was (that flight cured me of flying coach to Europe - never again!). I flew on a couple of United planes earlier this year returning from a trip to Central America (in coach), and those seats were pretty awful, too. One flight was in "Economy Plus" (I paid a few bucks extra to see how much of a difference that made) and even that was pretty uncomfortable. Good thing those flights were short, after about 15 minutes I wanted out.

But rather than saying what airline is better than another (which is an oversimplification - seats vary from plane to plane), I would strongly suggest using the tools available on the internet:, while certainly imperfect, will at least give you seat dimensions and (usually) actual user reports for specific aircraft used by specific airlines - if you're shopping only by looking at price, I would suggest you get to seatguru and plug in the flight numbers before clicking the "purchase tickets" button. At least then you can make a more informed decision weighing seat comfort, schedule and price as you see fit.

I would never book any flight without knowing beforehand exactly what the seat dimensions were - no way! Even on the relatively short flights I do regularly for work, I carefully research the aircraft in question before booking. They are not all the same, and it does make a difference!