Will the airlines finally be forced to restore legroom?

Earlier this month we learned that American Airlines was paying off an anti-trust suit which claimed that four major carriers had conspired to keep flights packed and bolster ticket prices even as the cost of fuel was dropping significantly. While maintaining their innocence as part of the settlement, the airline seemed to be showing some signs of admitting that not everything was quite as rosy as it might be in terms of customer service.

Now there’s some other potentially good news for flyers on the horizon. It has nothing to do with customer complaints in this scenario, but rather an investigation by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General into emergency evacuation protocols. Yahoo News reported last week that the standards being used by the FAA for these safety considerations are likely outdated and the airlines may be forced to give back some of that legroom you’ve been missing.

In a memo, the watchdog for the U.S. Department of Transportation has revealed that it’s auditing the FAA’s oversight of aircraft evacuation procedures this month.

The move from the DOT’s Inspector General comes at the request of Rep. Steve Cohen (D-KY), who has been pushing for both evacuation testing and less cramped airline seating for years.

All aircraft must be able to evacuate in less than 90 seconds in the event of an emergency, and it’s up to the FAA to certify them using data from real-world tests or equivalent simulations.

But Cohen and others like Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) have long warned that shrinking and more densely packed airline seats mean the old tests need to be updated with modern plane configurations.

By law, the planes are supposed to be able to be evacuated in 90 seconds or less. That was the standard they met many years ago when people weren’t packed in like sardines and there was more room to unbuckle, stand up and move into the aisle. But with the cramped conditions now in place in economy class on all the major carriers, that no longer seems to be the case.

One American Airlines flight in October 2016 experienced an engine fire and the passengers had to be evacuated. A review of the event showed that the evacuation had taken two minutes and 21 seconds, almost a full minute slower than the minimum requirement. In July of last year the FAA promised Congress that they would do new testing and reevaluate designs and evacuation procedures, but to date, they have failed to report back. There’s a bill wrapped up in the FAA Reauthorization Act which would mandate that planes be safer in this regard, likely resulting in the airlines being forced to stretch out the “pitch” of the seats again to remain in compliance. That package has passed the House, but not the Senate yet.

This would be a welcome relief, even if it’s not happening for the right reasons. Flying conditions are awful and anyone not wealthy enough to constantly fly first class knows it. If we had any real competition in the air travel market somebody would be offering better seating at a competitive price. Sadly, we have what amounts to a monopoly in that space these days thanks to constant mergers among the major carriers.