Congressman Introduces Bill to Halt the Coach-Class Seat Squeeze


Tired of squeezing your ever-expanding frame into those ever-shrinking coach-class seats? So is Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation. And he wants the government to do something about it.

In his proposed legislation, the Safe Egress in Air Travel Act of 2016, or SEAT, Cohen is taking a novel tack in arguing for more capacious seating. Rather than whine about discomfort or claustrophobia—complaints that have gotten no traction with either airlines or legislators—he stresses the relationship between seat size and both safety and health.

Consumers are tired of being squeezed both physically and fiscally by airlines. Shrinking seat sizes isn’t just a matter of comfort but safety and health as well. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency, yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s smaller seats. Doctors have also warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who can’t move their legs during longer flights.

RELATED: Airlines to Harried Flyers: ‘Relax, Have a Pretzel’

Cohen plans to introduce SEAT as an amendment to the pending FAA reauthorization bill. The Act, if approved, would not itself define the minimum seat dimensions. Rather, it calls for the Secretary of Transportation to establish the minimums, within one year of the Act’s passage.

The Congressman claims that seat pitch, the distance between rows, has decreased from 35 inches in the 1970s to 31 inches today, and seat width has decreased from 18 inches to 16.5 inches.

What Cohen didn’t mention was the other half of the equation: Even as seating has become tighter, passengers have been getting taller and heavier. That’s a sure recipe for discomfort. And it raises legitimate safety and health concerns as well, as Cohen warns. We’ll see whether Congress agrees or not.

Reader Reality Check

Is it time the government put a stop to the airlines’ seat squeeze?

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and almost that long writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

This article first appeared on, where Tim Winship is Editor-at-Large.


  1. Gary, thanks for the head-butt. The first of many, I’m sure.

    The fact that reducing capacity MIGHT result in higher airfares doesn’t mean the airlines shouldn’t reduce capacity. That’s like saying that building owners shouldn’t have to install fire alarms because the added costs would translate into higher rents. Is there conclusive proof that crusher seats negatively impact safety, or increase the likelihood of DVT? No. But I’ll go with my gut on those questions and advocate for safety over profits.

    • I’ll go with decades worth of empirical and say that without science I wouldn’t want to take away the option for folks to fly Spirit, force them to drive, which of course is less safe than flying…


      • Not sure what “empirical evidence” you’re referencing, but if the subject under discussion could be resolved by scientific consensus, it would be a settled matter. And it’s obviously anything but. Suspect where you and I diverge is more on values, less on the facts.

        • There may be a difference in values, you haven’t shared your perspective but mine is that people ought to be able to choose to fly Spirit rather than not fly, and of course that’s safer than driving. So I don’t want to push people into less safe activity.

          But I just assume it’s a difference on the empirics, we’ve got 30+ years of 31 inch pitch and 17 inch width that the legislation would outlaw. I haven’t seen tons of reported injuries or illnesses. But if you think there’s an issue there, I’d expect you would want to study that to SEE if there’s evidence that would warrant action… rather than just jumping to specific action without evidence?

  2. “The Federal Aviation Administration requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency, yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s smaller seats.”

    Is this guy a Republican? I’m sure Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, and Embrarer can disprove this inflammatory BS fallacy. Ruins the rest of his otherwise good statements.

  3. Actually, the guy is a Democrat and represents a large black population in the city of Memphis and surrounding areas – but Cohen keeps getting re-elected over the opposition of many black ministers in his district. It goes back to Harold Ford, Jr. and his Father who represented the district for many years prior to Cohen being elected.

    Regardless – this bill will be dead in the water.



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