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What happened to the friendly skies?

Air rage reaches epidemic as travelers are squeezed into smaller seats

Created date

July 20th, 2015
airline travel 1950s
airline travel 1950s

A year ago, a surge of headlines about the “knee defender,” a $22 device, made the news. When air travelers attach the knee defender to their tray table, the seat in front of them can’t recline. While some view the device as a way to protect personal space, others see it as a misguided way to infringe on other people’s right to recline their seats.   

There were a few mid-air brawls related to the knee defender—and a few instances where such brawls led to unscheduled landings—inconveniencing a plane full of people. Since then, a number of major airlines, including American, United, and Southwest have banned the knee defender. They have not, however, addressed the reason some passengers feel the need to guard their space. 

In fact, banning the knee defender did little to make the skies friendlier. Hardly a week goes by without a report of a mid-air fistfight or a commercial airliner forced to make an unscheduled landing. The culprit? Air rage—also known as just plain bad behavior. Are people more uncivilized these days, or is something else at work? 

Stressful travel

Traveling by air has never been more stressful. Airports are immense and security measures are taxing, so by the time people board the aircraft, they are often tense and exhausted, making the desire to claim and maintain personal space their number one objective. It’s no wonder arguments break out. 

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the U.S. Department of Transportation was formed to address issues related to the travel experience. Speaking at a meeting of the group, Julie Frederick of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said that since deregulation of the airline industry in the late 1970s, economy airline travel has become a negative experience. She believes the culprit is the drastic reduction in personal space—from diminishing seat dimensions to restrictions on carry-on luggage and charges for checked baggage. 

Frederick says that when airlines began charging economy travelers for checked bags, the carry-on became “the bane of flight attendants’ existence.” Securing coveted space in the overhead bins is frequently contentious and she notes how the oft-repeated line, “It will fit,” is sure to make flight crews wince. 

Shrinking seats

While stowing bags may be the first order of business for air travelers, once they buckle into their seats, there isn’t much room. It’s not your imagination or even a growing waistline. The seats are smaller and perhaps more significantly, so is the distance between the seats, known as the pitch. Charles Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, a consumer advocacy group, says that about ten years ago, the average pitch of an economy seat was about 35 inches. Today the average is closer to 28 inches. 

While the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) has a number of regulations concerning the safety of aircraft passenger seats, there is no specific regulation about the size of the seat or how close it may be to the one in front or behind it. 

“How many seats can you have on an airplane?” asks Leocha. “The only real criterion is egress—or the act of evacuating the aircraft. Manufacturers must demonstrate that all passengers can evacuate in 90 seconds or less with half of the exits blocked.” 

Decreasing the seat pitch allows an airline to add more seats, thereby increasing profits. As airlines have added more seats, they have added more doors and they continue to pass the FAA’s criteria.  

Humane conditions

What has not been tested, however, is the impact of restricting passengers to a smaller space. “Today, everyone who has flown is aware that we have seats that are squeezed together more and more,” says Leocha. “Seats have changed. Technology has changed. But that pitch now is coming down to only about 28 inches. My question is where do we stop it? If you are a dog, you have very specific rules written for you [about air travel].  But if you are a human being, there are no rules about what is humane.”

Health concerns

It’s a well-known fact that air travel can cause deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or blood clots in certain passengers—older passengers, those who take birth control pills, those who are obese—in other words, a majority of flyers are at risk for DVT. 

One way to help prevent DVT is by frequently changing position. Simply moving around in your seat is often enough to increase circulation in the legs, but as the seat size has shrunk, there just isn’t any room to move—especially for those who are tall or have long legs. 

There is growing concern that limited personal space on an aircraft is more than just uncomfortable. It may be unhealthful. “If high-density seating increases,” says Frederick, “we believe that both regulators and the air carriers need to look closely and carefully at the causes and effects that packing them in has on safety and security.” 

For the time being, those seeking extra legroom have the option of paying a little extra to secure an exit row or premium seat.