Senate Votes Down Bill To Regulate Airplane Legroom

Filed Under: Travel

A bit over a month ago I wrote about a bill introduced by New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who wanted the Federal Aviation Administration to establish seat-size standards for commercial aviation. His argument was that people are being packed into planes like sardines, and that if the FAA didn’t step in to stop it, the airlines would keep reducing the space allocated to each seat.

Everyone wants more space on a plane, but the problem is that people aren’t consistently willing to pay for it:

  • Many airlines now offer extra legroom economy seating, or at a minimum, sell exit row seating, meaning passengers who value more space can pay for it
  • The whole reason airlines like Spirit can offer such low fares is because of how many seats they manage to fit on planes; decreasing the number of seats on a plane would raise fares, which decreases the ability consumers have to customize their travel experience
  • Keep in mind that the FAA has to certify seats and evacuation procedures, so the FAA already has the duty to prevent airlines from installing unsafe configurations; this bill wasn’t about safety


Well, the bill was voted on yesterday (Thursday), and it failed. Interestingly the vote went down party lines, with the vote failing by a margin of 54-42.

Per The Washington Post, here’s what Senator Schumer said on the Senate floor prior to the vote:

“Flying is not pleasant anymore,” he said. “You’re crammed in. I’m not that tall. I’m a little under 6-foot-1, and what I do when I fly is I take out the magazine and the airsickness bag and the little folder that tells you where the exits are to gain a 16th of an inch more legroom, so my knees don’t bang into the seat in front of me.”

“This is a place where the public is clamoring for change,” he continued. “I got more feedback on [the amendment] than most other things. You don’t have to be 6-foot-4 to understand the problem.”

Bottom line

I’m not surprised to see the bill shot down, though I’m a bit surprised to see this went down party lines, since I didn’t really view this as a Democrat vs. Republican issue. We all want more legroom, but we also all want the lowest possible fares. Back in the day American proved people aren’t willing to pay a mild premium for more legroom throughout economy, when they offered More Room Throughout Coach. They couldn’t get away with charging even a slight premium.

Fewer seats translates to higher fares, and I don’t view that as being good for consumers. Especially when the option is already there to pay for extra legroom seating on a vast majority of planes.

What do you make of this bill being shot down in the Senate?

  1. I’m not surprised it when down party lines, GOP wants smaller government, less regulation, Democrats want more regulation, bigger government. This bill was about more regulation.

  2. It’s rather sad when even relatively straightforward matters can’t get a bipartisan support.

  3. @Ivan I don’t think this idea is straightforward. I am more suprised that more democrats didn’t vote this down. Lucky is 100% right about more choice. Consumers who choose cheaper fares should understand that they are getting less legroom. Airfares are cheaper relative to the pre deregulation. I don’t know why people are not understanding this. Less seats in a plane equals higher fares…end of discussion.

  4. It’s a Democrat vs. Republican issue because it is no different than any other debate about government involvement in the free market. Democrats are generally okay with greater government involvement (in this case in the form of mandating minimum seat size requirements), while Republicans prefer letting the consumer behavior dictate the trajectory of the market (meaning in this case that seats will continue to get smaller until people deem them too uncomfortable for the price being charged)

  5. No one has proven anything of the sort, Lucky. What they proved is that people don’t like to pay “a mild premium” for what they were already getting for free, which is true in any industry. People complain when a can of tuna gets shrunk by an ounce and the manufacturer charges the same price. It seems deceptive and greedy, i.e., being ripped off.

  6. It is an election year. 33% of the Senate is up for re-election (including Schumer). This bill was submitted with the knowledge that it would not pass. The only reason it was put up for a floor vote was so ‘populist’ senators could say they voted ‘yes’ to support the people, and ‘fiscal conservative’ senators could say they voted against unnecessary regulation. Plus, they were probably able to get some campaign donations from the airline lobbyists. Nothing makes it to a floor vote in the Senate without having underlying motives, especially in an election year.

  7. Good way to force people to slim down. I think republicans have people’s best interests at heart.

  8. I wonder how rigorous the FAA’s saftey testing and certification really is though. With passengers getting larger and seats getting smaller I wonder if most flights could be safely evacuted if necessary. With all of the airlines offering less and less space it’s not like some one who might pay a little more has much choice.

  9. @Ivan

    I am actually appalled that the measure got the support it did. The bipartisan support this straightforward measure should have been a 98-2 or 97-3 rejection. Customers, as a class, have made it clear – they generally do not care to pay a premium for better service. Congress should not act to impose that service, knowing that a premium will inevitably get factored into price.

    Oh, but the Democrats assume that when they micromanage the product the price will remain the same.

    Fools, every one of them.

  10. Let’s take this to the logical extreme. Let’s say an airline finally installs standing “seats”:

    Let’s also say that the FAA certifies them as safe. Now you can travel 6 hours from NY to CA for half the price of a sitting-down seat. It’s *extremely* uncomfortable, maybe even painful. But a lot of people do it because they can’t afford a sit-down seat.

    The market might support the above scenario. But I’m not sure I want to live in a society where it’s allowed, much less common.

  11. What is needed for change is just one airline to offer more legroom in ALL economy seats at the same price as regular economy and then see if market dynamics make the change. Of course, it would be crazy for this sort of action to happen in today’s airline marketplace given the billions in profit they are currently earning with existing configurations.

    Like others above have said, I’m shocked the measure got the support it did.

  12. “What is needed for change is just one airline to offer more legroom in ALL economy seats at the same price as regular economy and then see if market dynamics make the change.”

    AA tried this with their “more room throughout coach” a few years ago, and it failed because people tended to just buy the cheapest tickets and ignore the benefit of the extra legroom.

  13. Why don’t the FAA do a test on evacuation of these planes. With different size people and then see what happen .until people die then something will be done.the government is here to protect that we have laws and maybe some can’t afford to go first class like all the

  14. It is a D vs R issue, as Rs want less government involvement in the business and Ds want more. Susan Collins is not that conservative and has bipartisan support in Maine (she has 78% approval rate, second in the senate behind Bernie). I am not very familiar with the three D senators voted against the bill, but from their geographical location I can infer that they are not very liberal.

  15. Legroom Rage? Perhaps, that is what is coming. Yes, people want their cake and eat it too. That is the problem and issue. At what point being able to do something leads directly to a regrettable conclusion?

    For a cheaper price, people readily forget any potential risks. That is very dangerous and that is where the bill could have some merit. I am not advocating that this particular bill is a good solution. What I am simply observing that airlines will cram 20 more people on a plane, if they could. Consumers would willing fly on those planes, if the price was 5% cheaper. But what if there 3 people too many and fights start breaking out.

    This site proves that point. Flying business and first class is so much better than economy because there is more space and more service. It is more “human” than riding in the back of the plane with the “savages” and “wild animals”. Do not get me wrong. I have nothing against people who fly coach. I am flying coach more and more these days. I do have a problem with greedy people who fly coach and complain or people who sit in airline board rooms complaining that they are not maximising the available space in their aircraft.

    We are getting very close to a point the compressing more people onto a plane will lead to a social explosion. Legislation may be the only way to prevent that from happening.

  16. Lgislation to set minimum legroom is a small issue. The Congress should pass legislation that allows the public to use state-law remedies when they have disputes with airlines.

  17. @credit – Dummy – No one was talking about anyone’s width, we are talking about the privilege of not having your knees and legs crushed. I am 6’2″ tall. I do not fit inside most coach seats because of my height. And before you snap back with “pay more for premium economy”, there are not enough of those seats for all the tall people on planes. So quit making snide remarks about people’s weight when you do not know anything about the other person. Maybe you are a squirt that can fit in a child seat, but many of us cannot. And we are being penalized for it.

  18. We don’t have sufficient competition. Most non stop routes have only one airline serving them and you have to make do with what they provide.

  19. Is Schumer trying to claim that he flies coach? I think not.

    “One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), voted for the amendment; three Democrats — Thomas R. Carper (Del.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) — opposed it. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.) did not vote.”

    Not sure what Durbin’s excuse is. Obviously Cruz and Sanders are too busy campaigning to DO THEIR JOBS. We’re paying them… for what? Is Rubio back to work yet? Because he was blowing off just about every vote.

  20. They will squeeze us in like sardines until we collectively say no and stop flying. I am in general conservative and don’t like excessive government control, but I think this amendment was a good one. As some have pointed out, some markets have no competition. You either take it up the rear or you don’t fly, not very good choices.

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