SEAT Act could bring government meddling to airline cabins

The SEAT Act would require the FAA to mandate minimum seat sizes for airlines

The SEAT Act would require the FAA to mandate minimum seat sizes for airlines

Yet another politician is seeking to join the long, sordid history of elected officials meddling in the free market. This time, government is attempting to protect you from uncomfortable airline seats. The Seat Egress in Air Travel Act, or SEAT Act, as proposed by Tennessee Democrat Congressman Steve Cohen, would have the Federal Aviation Administration establish a minimize size for airline seats. The Congressman is attempting to couch his bill as protecting passenger safety and health.

I try to avoid politics on this blog because, frankly, most aspects of travel are apolitical. However, when a bill goes to the heart of the travel industry and could have significant negative ramifications for the travel consumer, I feel compelled to comment. I am an unabashed supporter of small government and the free market. I am firmly convinced that, in the majority of situations, this is the best way to ensure our general freedom, including economic freedom of choice. That is not the same as saying I support no government oversight of industry. However, such oversight is only appropriate in cases where information regarding whatever is being regulated is not available to a consumer at the time of purchase. Similarly, in some cases, regulation is justifiable where risk to the safety and health of the consumer is sizable and eminent. Despite the comment of Rep. Cohen, neither test is necessarily applicable to airline seat sizes.

Customers have ample information on seat size

Airlines publish seat size information on their websites

Airlines publish seat size information on their websites

First and foremost, there is simply no transparency issue regarding seat size. Information about not only seat size but also comfort is readily available. Airlines publish seat sizes for their various airline cabins and aircraft combinations. Websites such as provide the same information with additional detail and insight, and a plethora of reviews are available on numerous blogs. Since this information is so accessible, the failure of the customer to do her homework on flight options is not justification to cede economic freedom to government and limit consumer choice. As the spokesperson for Airlines for America accurately states, "As with any commercial product or service, customers vote every day with their wallet." This vote is how the free market, assuming market participants have sufficient information to make an informed decision, self-regulates. And self-regulation is a manifestation of economic freedom.

Is passenger safety and health really at risk?

Regarding passenger safety and health, there may be more legitimacy to the Act if there is evidence of risk to consumersThis is not necessarily logically the case and the Congressman, himself, makes an argument to the contrary. Rep. Cohen states:

‘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.’
— Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN)

So the congressman admits that we don't even know if smaller seats slow evacuation. That begs the question: why propose a new law when the rationale for its need is untested and unproven? Why not make a more reasonable proposal to actually test the theory before further burdening airlines and their consumers with more regulation? Quite obviously, on this count, the SEAT Act is a solution in search of a problem.

The congressman also cites an increased risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) due to smaller seats. While DVT is certainly a concern for those taking long flights, it is a risk born of lack of movement which is not entirely a function of aircraft seat size. If a passenger in a roomy first class suite fails to get up and move during a long haul flight, she is at higher risk of DVT. Granted, it's much more difficult to move at one's seat or to get up in the tight confines of an economy class cabin, but a slightly larger economy seat won't significantly change that situation. I routinely opt for Comfort+ seating on Delta, so I get back the four inches of legroom that Rep. Cohen laughably claims has been robbed from me (more on that below). When it comes to movement, it really makes little difference. True, the Comfort+ seat is no wider, but another two inches of width would similarly be of limited benefit. 

The SEAT Act would bring higher fares and more nickel-and-dime fees

While the arguments offered by Rep. Cohen for the SEAT Act are flawed at worst and unproven at best, what is almost certain is implementation of the new law would reverse the long trend of falling cost for air travel. Data from Airlines for America shows that airfare, after adjusting for inflation, has fallen over 33% from 1979 to 2014.

Airfares have fallen by more than 33% from 1979 through 2014 (Date: Airlines for America) (click to enlarge)

Granted, there has been an uptick in fares since 2009, but deregulation and competition from low-cost carriers has no doubt impacted this longer trend. Many, if not most of these carriers, rely on minimizing passenger cost which is accomplished in part by maximizing the number of passengers per flight. This requires more cramped seating. Put simply, the reality passengers face is that more room will mean higher airfares and/or higher fees. If airlines can't successfully increase base airfares to cover the increase in per-passenger costs that larger seats would bring, they will monetize even more of the services that are currently included via nickel-and-dime fees. Such is the insidious nature of government interference with free markets. 

The SEAT Act should be denied boarding

Airlines are businesses and have profitability goals. They will make money or they will cease to exist. Politicians often peddle benefits that we often agree are desirable; as a big man, I would love larger economy class seats! However, when these benefits are achieved by the heavy hand of government regulation, those same politicians give short shrift to the resulting economic side effects.

The invisible hand works as buyers spend money driven by the value they place on competing products in the marketplace relative to the price of those products. In the case of airline seats, the success of low-cost carriers evidences a customer segment that does not value larger airline seats (and other services) to the amount reflected by the price premium of those products. This is precisely why Rep. Cohen's claim that passengers "have been robbed of 4 inches of legroom and an inch and a half of width in their seat since the 1970s" is so laughable. Passengers have not been robbed since they have willingly accepted smaller seats and paid lower fares as a result.

The customer has spoken via their wallets, so why should government overrule the wisdom of the flying public? Absent any definitive evidence of a detriment to safety and health issues, there is no merit to the SEAT Act and, in my opinion, it should be dead-on-arrival in the U.S. Congress. If we collectively value larger airline seats enough, our demands will eventually be reflected in the commercial aviation marketplace.