WASHINGTON (CBS News) – The Senate refused Thursday to come to the aid of airline passengers squeezed by the ever-shrinking size of their seats.
An amendment by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would have blocked airlines from further reducing the “size, width, padding, and pitch” of seats, passengers’ legroom and the width of aisles. “It costs you an arm and a leg just to have room for your arms and legs,” Schumer said.
The amendment also would have required the Federal Aviation Administration to set standards for the minimum amount of space airlines must provide passengers for their “safety, health and comfort.” Airlines would have had to post the size of their seats on their websites so that consumers could take the information into consideration when buying tickets.
The proposal failed on a vote of 42-54, with all but three Democrats in favor and all but one Republican against.
Economy-class airline seats have shrunk in recent years on average from a width of 18 inches to 16.5 inches. The average pitch — the space between a point on one seat and the same on the seat in front of it — has gone from 35 inches to about 31 inches. Many airlines are charging passengers for extra legroom in amounts that used to be standard.
Over the last few years, the airlines have also reduced capacity. Fewer flights mean the planes fly fuller. At the same time, many American carriers have found ways to squeeze in even more seats, CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave reported in November.
While Jet Blue, Southwest and Virgin America offer the most space between rows, Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit offer the least, with as little as just 28 inches of space and seats that don’t even recline.
“If you crowd more and more people together, bad things happen,” Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, told CBS News.
In August, Hudson’s group sent the FAA a petition with over 30,000 signatures supporting larger seats, asking the agency to stop carriers from making seats any smaller and to create minimum seat size standards.
“It is a safety concern, particularly with evacuation that hasn’t really been tested for these small spaces,” said Hudson. “It is a health concern for blood clots. It is a safety concern when people are having disagreements and fight about space.”
No senators spoke against the proposal Thursday, but airlines opposed to the measure have accused lawmakers of trying to “re-regulate” an industry that has been deregulated since 1978.
The vote was the Senate’s last this week. Shortly afterward, many senators left to board planes to fly home to their states.
The Senate is considering a bill to renew FAA programs, due to expire July 15, through Oct. 1, 2017. The bill also contains aviation policy provisions that lawmakers have been working on for more than four years, including greater access for drones to the national airspace and protections for airline passengers chafing at fees for basic services such as checked bags and ticket changes.
Also Thursday, the Senate overwhelmingly approved amendments seeking to boost security at airports and other transportation hubs in response to last month’s attacks in Brussels, as well as the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt last year that is suspected to have been caused by a bomb planted by an airport worker. The security amendments would:
- Authorize an increase from 30 up to 60 in the number of government “viper teams” that stop and search suspicious passengers in public areas before screening, often using bomb-sniffing dogs.
- Make more federal grants available to train law enforcement officers in how to prepare for and respond to active shootings at transportation hubs and other “soft targets.”
- Require the Transportation Security Administration to use private companies to market and enroll more people in its PreCheck program while ensuring PreCheck screening lanes are open during high-volume travel times. The aim is to reduce crowds waiting for security screening by vetting more passengers before they arrive to get them through checkpoints quickly.
- Enhance the vetting of airport employees with access to secure areas. It also expands the use of random and physical inspections of airport employees in secure areas and requires a review of perimeter security.
- Authorize TSA to donate unneeded security equipment to foreign airports with direct flights to the U.S., permit increased cooperation between U.S. officials and partner nations to protect routes flown by Americans, and require a new assessment of foreign cargo security programs.