Tiny airplane seats are more than annoying — they could be dangerous

Robert Adrian Hillman / Stocksy

In case you haven’t noticed, legroom has been mysteriously shrinking in the past few decades, forcing even small and flexible folks (fairly smol yoga teacher here) to contort ourselves into pretzels before takeoff. Before the airlines were deregulated in the 1970s, the federal government was the boss of what airplanes looked like and where they flew and space between seats was mandated at 37 inches. Now, small airplane seats are the norm and the average distance between the front of one seat and the back of the seat in front of it (called “pitch” in the airline industry) is 31 inches. Pitch shrinks even more on ultra budget airlines, like Spirit, where the seats are only 28 inches apart.

Alejandro Moreno De Carlos / Stocksy

So what’s the big deal about tiny seats, besides the fact that people now hate flying so much that the whole airline industry might crumble?

They could be dangerous, so the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it will be testing evacuation safety procedures next month. In the event of an emergency, people have to be able to get out of planes fast. Federal regulations require that an aircraft can be evacuated in 90 seconds. When actual emergencies happen, evacuations are taking longer: In 2016, when an American Airlines jet had to be evacuated in Chicago due to a fire, it took two minutes and 26 seconds.

This might have happened not just because of small seats and tight spaces between them, but also because we Americans are getting bigger. American men have a mean width of about 40 inches. It doesn’t take a geometrist to deduce that fitting a human that is 40 inches wide into a space that is 28 inches wide requires some intentional angling and squishing. For a plane to be evacuated in 90 seconds, each person has a very short time to maneuver off the aircraft. Consider differently sized and abled bodies in that small space, add in some highly flammable materials, multiply by fear of death, and what you have is a not very heartening equation.

There’ll be 720 volunteers employed to test evacuation safety over the course of 12 days in November. Should we be relieved by this? No one seems placated. Democrats and Republicans seemed to agree that the situation is problematic. “Getting out [during an evacuation] would be a really useful thing,” quipped Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Michigan Republican. No kidding.