Airline Seat Regulation: The Gift That Keeps on Taking

Airline Seat Regulation: The Gift That Keeps on Taking

Harried travelers who cram themselves into airplane seats this Christmas season might believe that their future peregrinations will be merrier and brighter because Santa Congress mandated a new regulation to establish minimum airline seat sizes. Unfortunately, the reality is much more complicated.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill that Congress passed by overwhelming margins last fall includes a provision for regulation of commercial airline seats that has been widely heralded as “pro-consumer.” But effective regulation of airline seating would likely raise air fares and prevent some passengers from flying as airlines reduce the number of seats in each plane to comply with the regulation.

The legislation directs the FAA to establish minimum dimensions for the width, length and “pitch” of airline seats. The pitch is the distance between the same point on two seats – a key determinant of leg room.

The summary of the bill produced by committee staff lists the seat regulation as the first of 15 provisions that improve service for consumers. A Washington Post article on the FAA bill uncritically characterized it as a victory for consumers. Even the host and analyst for a Motley Fool segment on FAA reauthorization quickly agreed that seat regulation is a “win” for consumers.

But not all of the reaction is positive. Some consumer advocates fear that the FAA will pick the smallest current seat size as the minimum, and airlines that currently offer more space will take this as an invitation to scrunch seats closer together. But I doubt the airlines that offer more space will throw away this competitive advantage.

Consumers should be more worried that the regulation might actually succeed in forcing airlines to increase seating space on a lot of flights. If an airplane has more space between seats, fewer seats can fit in the plane. That means fewer passengers to share the costs of flying the plane. Airlines would have to make up this lost revenue by increasing ticket prices or other fees.

And higher prices or fees mean that some travelers will decide to use another form of transportation. That has implications for safety. The legislation explicitly directs the FAA to issue seat size regulations “that are necessary for the safety of passengers,” and this is the only criterion specified.

Statistically, flying is far safer than driving. According to the National Safety Council, the odds of an American dying in a car crash are more than 80 times greater than the odds of dying in an air or space transportation accident. Thus, a regulation ostensibly motivated by concerns about airline safety could increase highway deaths and injuries by encouraging travelers to substitute driving for flying.

Even if the real issue is comfort, not safety, the consequences for consumers are complicated. Whether an individual who continues to fly gains or loses from this regulation depends on how much he or she values the additional space. 

Some passengers are willing to pay extra for more room, and they often do so by purchasing exit row seats. An effective regulation would make them happy, since they would get their extra space and the costs would be spread among all passengers on the flight.

But the experience of the past 40 years suggests that many passengers are willing to put up with tighter seating in order to save money on their tickets. Prior to passage of the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, the industry was essentially a government-enforced cartel. Regulation prevented fare-cutting, so airlines competed by offering more legroom, better meals, and other amenities that flyers surely enjoyed.

Airlines were free to continue offering these perks after they were deregulated, but they found they could attract more passengers by cutting frills and reducing fares. As a result, air travel became affordable for the middle class. In 1971, half the US population had never flown on an airplane; by 1988, 75 percent had. A regulation mandating more seating space would make price-conscious passengers pay more for an amenity they value less.

Legislators like to give constituents something for nothing, especially in the run-up to an election. That’s a promise the seat-size regulation cannot keep in the New Year.

Jerry Ellig is a research professor at The George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.

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