In a famous experiment that was launched in an unused lot near his home in Towson in the 1940s, Johns Hopkins behavioral researcher John B. Calhoun discovered that when rodent populations were crowded together, they behaved badly. Given space, they lived harmoniously. Squeeze them into tight spaces and suddenly, there was aggressive behavior, deliberate wounding of young and, eventually, a complete social breakdown. His work ended up influencing everything from psychiatry to city planning (and even the animated movie, “The Secret of NIMH"). But it appears there is a least one organization that has taken no notice of the rats and mice who gave their lives to teach humans about the dangers of sardine can living.
That would be the Federal Aviation Administration.
For those who travel in airline economy class, a reminder of its purgatorial nature arose from the depths of YouTube last week in the form of a video of an American Airlines passenger that went viral. The clip featuring a man repeatedly punching the back of a reclined female traveler’s seat with his fist launched a windy “who is at fault” debate over whether it’s worse to recline one’s seat without seeking permission from the traveler behind you or to forcefully protest a reclined seat. But while courtesy should never fall out of fashion, the social media uproar missed the essential problem: Why are human beings forced to sit in such close proximity that passengers paying hundreds of dollars can’t be spared this dilemma? The fault is not with ourselves or our neighbors, but with an air travel industry squeezing every last nickel out of its seating plans without the slightest worry of government intervention.
The diminishment in the width and pitch of airline seats since deregulation was launched four decades ago is scandalous. Airlines that once offered 36 inches of legroom as a standard are now 31 inches or less. In some cases, it’s as little as 27 inches. Narrowing of seats is just as bad. And it’s not just to squeeze more people in the cabin, companies like American are making bigger profits by forcing customers to upgrade. But there’s also a cost that goes well beyond etiquette. There’s a rising threat of air rage, concern that planes have become too difficult to evacuate quickly in an emergency, and even a threat that tiny seats are putting passengers at greater risk of blood clots and transmitting flu and similar diseases. Just ask any flight attendant what air travel in coach has devolved into: “This is not an issue the market will fix,” the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, noted in a statement last fall.
What’s needed is government intervention. For years, we have advocated for Congress to pass an air travel “bill of rights” that would improve travel for a host of issues including setting a minimum seat size and pitch. Two years ago, the legislative branch instead approved a measure requiring the FAA to look at seat size as a health and safety issue (studying, for example, how long it takes for passengers to exit a plane in case of an emergency). The agency’s findings are expected to be announced next month, but industry observers are not hopeful. The FAA’s track record isn’t especially good at sticking up for customers, and the federal government’s interest in regulation has only regressed further under Donald Trump. Just look at the Boeing 737 MAX debacle and the agency’s coziness with the manufacturer. It was only after two crashes that killed 346 people that the FAA grounded the aircraft last March and suspended further production. Yet it’s clear in retrospect that the agency should never have certified the airplane in the first place.
Would setting a minimum seat size and pitch raise the price of a ticket? Perhaps, but the same could be said of automobile seat belts, air bags and other safety and health-related features. Airlines can’t guarantee passenger safety when people are getting bigger but seats are getting smaller. What happens when it’s no longer fists hitting seat backs but faces? Or civility breaks down further? Flight attendants can’t be expected to be prison guards or cops on the beat. A few inches, and a slight squeeze in airline profit margins, is really all that’s necessary. A vigilant government watchdog would have sniffed this out years ago. Perhaps the FAA will eventually, too.