Forget legroom—air travelers are fed up with seat width

Move over.
Move over.
Image: Reuters/Randall Hill
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Complaining about declining legroom in an airplane is more or less an expected part of flying economy these days. With seat pitch—the distance from seat back to seat back—going as low as 28 inches on budget carriers like Spirit Airlines, it’s not hard to see why travelers have had enough with knee-grazing airplane experiences.

But a new survey from The Points Guy (TPG) pointed to a strong aversion to another element of travel: narrowing seat width. TPG asked 1,300 of their aviation-obsessed readers which parts of the air travel experience they would most like to see improved. An overwhelming 67% said they would like to see wider or more comfortable seats in economy class, while just 17.5% voted for more legroom in an economy seat.

The rise of “slimline” seats may be part of the reason. As airlines have diminished legroom to the point of no return, they’ve become more and more savvy on finding ways to save space. Slimline seats have less padding in the seat back, thereby reducing overall weight of the seat and seat pitch without, in theory, reducing legroom.

Norwegian Air is just one of the airlines that recently made the switch, outfitting its newest Boeing 737 Max aircrafts with slimline seats that offer a 30 inch pitch and a 17.2 inch width. The airline noted they were “designed to add space at knee-level giving customers additional comfort.” (Airlines have a knack for arguing that making seats slimmer somehow makes them more comfortable).

But while seat pitch may get all of the attention, width seems to fall by the wayside—despite the fact that it’s the dimension most likely to cause unwanted body to body contact with the stranger next to you. The UK’s Telegraph reported that in 1985, according to the US non-profit Consumers Union, none of America’s main four carriers offered a seat width less than 19 inches. Passenger rights groups have argued that since the early 2000s, the average seat width has dropped from 18.5 inches to just 17. United’s domestic flights sometimes have seat widths as low as 16.1 inches.

The non-profit citizens group Flyers Rights recently brought a case against the FAA arguing that the agency had a responsibility to prevent seats from becoming so cramped they turn into a safety issue that could hinder an emergency evacuation. As the judge presiding over in the case wrote in 2017, “aircraft seats and the spacing between them have been getting smaller and smaller, while American passengers have been growing in size.”

And yet, despite passenger misery, the FAA sees no reason to act. In a letter last week, the agency noted it “has no evidence that there is an immediate safety issue necessitating rule-making at this time.” It maintains that the current norms around seat pitch, comfort, and width don’t prevent passengers from being able to evacuate in 90 seconds, which is the FAA’s primary concern.

There may not be an issue with safety, but there certainly is one related to comfort.

Correction: A previous version of this post said Delta’s domestic flights sometimes have seat widths of 16.1 inches. In fact, it is United flights.