The mainstream media are highlighting the current safety test of tight airline coach seating, suggesting that the Department of Transportation (DoT) might set minimum seat sizes adequate to accommodate today's ever-larger American air traveler. Although I joined with a large group of leading consumer advocates in support of improved testing, I'm worried about the possibility that the DoT will not budge, resulting in a meaningless exercise. Consumers might stand a better chance of winning some relief on a different current issue: a requirement that airlines seat families together without forcing them to pay extra for seat assignments.
The seat size issue is straightforward: Many air crashes are survivable, with casualties resulting not from impact but from fire and smoke inhalation after a plane has landed and stopped largely intact. To minimize those fatalities, rules require than all passengers need to be able to get out of the plane within 90 seconds. But it has been years since anyone conducted an actual test, when seating was much looser, and after prodding by Congress and consumer advocates, the DoT reluctantly decided to conduct a new test with current seat sizes. In the new test, some 60 adults evacuate a ground testing rig that simulates today's typical main cabin seating.
Although lauding the idea of a test, we consumer advocates are concerned that the test design will lead to grossly underestimated evacuation times. The test group includes no seniors or kids; it includes no emotional support animals or disabled travelers, it does not account for the fact that many travelers try to take their carry-on baggage in an emergency, even though told not to, it does not account for the separation of family groups, and it has no way of simulating the effect of panic. In short, the test, as now constructed, is designed to validate today's tight seating -- which is what I'm afraid will happen.
Although much of the media comment has focused on how big American travelers have become, the test does not address seat width at all. The base fact is simple: The vast majority of domestic airline seats are set at six-across in 737s and A320s. And those seats are already as wide as they can get in those planes. The only way to provide wider seats would be to require airlines go to five-across seating, and that absolutely will not happen regardless of any test results. Thus, absent needed improvements, the DoT test will prove that today's tight seating is safe and DoT will announce it need not make any changes.
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Families on low-fare tickets who want to be seated together without paying seat-assignment fees might stand a better chance of finding relief. Historically, DoT has defended its lack of action on the excuse that it has received few formal complaints about family seat assignment. Last month, as a challenge, Consumers Union asked for public complaints, and received more than twice as many responses in a few days than the DoT received in two years. The family seating issue also has support in Congress and from consumer advocate organizations.
This is a classic case of how tin-eared airlines get regulations they don't like. Clearly, requiring a family to pay extra to sit together violates any sort of fairness standard -- or even just common sense. The airlines could easily solve the problem on their own. But they haven't, and when they don't, travelers resort to government regulation for relief, after which the airlines whine loudly about excessive regulation.
My take is that DoT is likely to react to the many new complaints and tell airlines, "If you don't fix this, we will." The airlines are likely to ignore the issue, after which DoT will reluctantly take action -- and the airlines will whine.
Clearly, if you agree that families should sit together without paying extra, you can add your voice. Just log onto airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm.
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