OPINION: Why the Senate vote about airline space was wrong

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 54 to 42 to kill an amendment to a bill that would have forced airlines to stop shrinking seat space. The senators voting against the bill, as well as some newspaper editorial boards, were looking at it the wrong way.

The measure that was defeated was an amendment to The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016 (S. 2658), a large reauthorization that Congress deals with about every four years to keep the FAA running. The amendment, introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) would have ordered a moratorium in reductions to seat width and pitch, which is the space from the back of one seat to the back of the seat in front of it.

It would also have empowered the FAA to consult with experts and set new standards for seat dimensions that maintain “the safety, health and comfort of passengers.” At present, experts can only consider safety when making such rules.

The pitch has dropped from around 33 to 34 inches before 2001 to around 30 to 31 inches now, according to Henry H. Harteveldt, founder and travel industry analyst at the Atmosphere Research Group. Seat width has also become narrower, with 17 inches a typical economy seat width, according to SeatGuru.com.

Predictably, an airline trade group opposed the measure. A spokeswoman for Airlines for America told the Associated Press in February that “the government should not regulate, but instead market forces, which reflect consumer decisions and competition, should determine what is offered.”

The Chicago Tribune shared the trade association’s position. In a February editorial, it too essentially said "Let market forces decide."

Republicans, who generally support market-based solutions, almost unanimously opposed Schumer’s amendment, while most Democrats supported it.

The problem, when it comes to airline seat space, is that there is so little difference from one airline to the next that there is no real “market” in the classic sense and no meaningful choice to be made. Seat space on U.S. airlines today does not vary in any significant degree from one carrier to another. There is so little difference from one airline to the next that the traveler has no real choice.

Look at the figures. Standard economy seats range from 17 inches wide to 18 inches on a few carriers, including Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA). With the exception of no-frills carrier Spirit, the pitch for most standard economy seats is between 30 and 32 inches. Pitch on Spirit's planes is 28 inches.

There are some minor exceptions to those figures. JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) offers standard economy seats that are up to 18.25 inches wide with 33 or 34 inches of pitch; more than any other standard economy section on U.S. airlines. Virgin America (NASDAQ:VA) provides standard economy seats that are 17.7 inches with pitch of 32 inches. Both airlines offer slightly more space that means a slightly more comfortable ride, but neither jetBlue nor Virgin America flies as many routes as the four biggest carriers so flying either of the smaller carriers may not be a viable option.

Further complicating matters is that there is little consistency, even within individual airlines.

American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL), for example, flies Airbus narrow-body jets that have seats that are from 17.7 to 18 inches wide and from 30 to 32 inches of pitch. An extra one-third of an inch in width may be nearly imperceptible but two more inches of legroom can make a big difference.

United Airlines’ (NYSE:UAL) narrow-body Airbus jets have seats 17.7 inches wide and pitch that is 30 inches, while its Boeing (NYSE:BA) 737s have standard economy seats that are 17.2 inches wide with 31 inches of pitch, according to SeatGuru.

I sincerely wish there was a meaningful choice among the nation’s airlines. I would gladly pay more to ride more comfortably, and do when premium economy seating or upgrades are available. But not everyone has the means to do so, and there needs to be a minimum acceptable standard for the safety, health and comfort of the traveling public.

Schumer’s amendment would have established such a standard.

Schumer said he had received more constituent feedback on this bill than most other issues that came before the Senate. And that is no surprise: airlines have been cramming more and more people into smaller and smaller seats for a long time, and the traveling public is sick of it.

Something needs to be done, and I applaud Schumer for trying. Maybe after the November election, depending on how the makeup of Congress changes, he will try again. It would be change I could believe in.

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