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Fighting the squeeze

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Can plane seats get any smaller?

Those of us who prefer not to find out were cheered when a bill that would set minimum seat size standards for commercial airlines was proposed in early February by Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee. More recently, the issue received attention when Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said that he also wanted to set seat size standards.

“People have gotten larger since seats were shrunk,” Cohen said during a February debate about his proposed amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act.

Seats were 18 inches wide before airline deregulation in the 1970s and have since been whittled to 16 1/2 inches, he said, while seat pitch used to be 35 inches and has decreased to about 31 inches. At the same time, the average man is 30 pounds heavier today than he was in 1960 (196 pounds compared with 166 pounds) and the average woman is 26 pounds heavier (166 pounds, up from 140 pounds), Cohen said, citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smaller seats and larger passengers mean planes may not be capable of rapid evacuation in the event of an emergency, he said. “This affects safety and health.”

Rep. Janice Hahn of California, a co-sponsor of the bill, added that passengers on cramped planes are getting in fights over products like the Knee Defender (about $22), the controversial clamps designed to attach to the arms of your tray table and prevent the person in front of you from reclining (possibly inciting a confrontation, though you can always hand your fellow passenger a Knee Defender Courtesy Card, which notes that you “realize that this may be an inconvenience”).

During the debate, Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota, among those who voted yes for the amendment, recalled seeing a man trying to squeeze into his seat and inadvertently pull the hair of the woman sitting in front of him. “And she’s screaming at him ‘cause he pulled her hair, and he’s screaming at her for screaming at him and, I mean, it’s getting out of line.”

Alas, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted down Cohen’s Seat Egress in Air Travel Act of 2016, 33-26, on Feb. 11. But I’m still holding out hope. Cohen introduced the act as a stand-alone bill on Feb. 8 and plans to introduce it again as an amendment if or when the FAA Reauthorization comes to the House floor for consideration, according to a spokesman for Cohen. On Feb. 28, Schumer announced that he would offer an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization bill that would require seat-size standards. “The average passenger feels like they’re being treated as a sardine,” he said during a news conference. “Squeezed and squeezed and squeezed.”

Whatever happens, Cohen’s bill raises important questions. Smaller seats are doubtless uncomfortable and unfair to travelers who are especially tall or heavy. But are they also unsafe?

Threat of blood clots

There are two main concerns addressed by the Seat Egress in Air Travel Act: “economy class syndrome” (the condition experienced by travelers who develop deep vein thrombosis, the formation of a blood clot or clots, after long-distance flights) and the ability for passengers to safely evacuate a plane when they can barely get into their seats in the best of circumstances.

The risk of developing deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism — a potentially life-threatening condition when a clot or part of a clot travels to the lungs — as a result of flying long distances appears to be real, though small. An average of 1 in 6,000 passengers will suffer from deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism after a long-haul flight, according to a study by the World Health Organization.

The American College of Chest Physicians said in its most recent guidelines on the topic that developing deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism as a result of long-distance travel is unlikely for most travelers but that certain factors may increase the risk. They include having already had the conditions, having cancer, recent surgery or trauma, immobility, advanced age, using estrogen, being pregnant, being obese, and sitting in a window seat (because it can limit mobility). That said, when the American College of Chest Physicians issues guidelines it also grades them based on the quality of the evidence used to generate its recommendations. The group’s guidelines on this particular topic are graded 2C, which acknowledges that the evidence is of low quality.

It’s worth noting that deep vein thrombosis is not confined to air travel. “Anyone traveling more than four hours, whether by air, car, bus, or train, can be at risk for blood clots,” according to the CDC. To help prevent clots, the CDC suggests moving your legs frequently and exercising your calf muscles. More information is available at (from there you can learn more about evidence and risk factors by clicking the Yellow Book chapter on DVT and travel link).

Messy evacuations

The other major safety concern Cohen raised is the ability of passengers to exit a plane in the event of an emergency.

“The FAA requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency,” he said in a statement when the bill was voted down, “yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s smaller seats. That’s unacceptable.”

At issue, Cohen said, is that the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on airlines with a distance between rows of less than 29 inches. And the House sets no safety standards for seat width or pitch. The consumer rights group said in late February that “it has been years since airlines have been required to conduct these tests, and back then, they used young, fit employees to conduct the tests. Any aircraft that has subsequently reduced seat width or pitch, or has added seats per row, should be required to recertify to the 90-second evacuation standard for that configuration, using volunteers from the general population, conforming to demographic standards, without prior training in aircraft evacuation, and with those tests supervised by the FAA.”

Since the introduction of Cohen’s bill, it has garnered a few more supporters, including Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York and Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a Republican, also signed on to the bill as a co-sponsor, joining several Democrats.

“I hope to see this go through the House with bipartisan support,” he said in a statement.

So do thousands of fliers on both sides of the aisle.

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