Congress to regulate shrinking airline seats?

Back in June, we looked at an FAA Inspector General’s report which suggested that the smaller and smaller airline seats we’re being jammed into presented a possible safety hazard. By law, commercial airliners are supposed to be able to be evacuated in 90 seconds in the event of an emergency. Recent incidents revealed that was taking two and a half minutes or more with a fully packed flight. The IG directed the FAA to take a fresh look at the issue, leading some to believe that the FAA was finally about to restore some legroom on airline flights.

Well, the FAA blew off the report and nothing was changed. Dealing with the growing chorus of complaints from travelers, it now appears that Congress is going to step in and do something about it whether it involves a safety issue or not. (Detroit News)

The Federal Aviation Administration would be required to set new minimum requirements for seats on airplanes under legislation to be considered in the House this week, possibly giving passengers a break from ever-shrinking legroom and cramped quarters.

The regulation of seat width and legroom is part of a five-year extension of federal aviation programs announced early Saturday by Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate committees that oversee the nation’s air travel.

Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to keep FAA programs running. The Senate will also need to take up the bill this week or both chambers will need to pass a short-term extension.

In addition to requiring the airlines to stop shrinking the seats, the bill would prohibit the forced bumping of passengers who have already boarded and been seated on a plane.

There’s probably an immediate temptation among most of us who have to fly on a regular basis to cheer this initiative, right? I’ll confess that even I had to suppress the urge to send them a big thumbs up. But the reality is that it wasn’t supposed to have to work this way. In an ideal world where things operate as they’re designed to in a free market economy, such congressional action shouldn’t be required or desired. The federal government shouldn’t be needed to rein in the worst impulses of private industry. But a combination of moribund forces inside the government and poor decisions in approving one merger after another may make this the only viable course at this point.

First of all, that Inspector General’s report never would have been ignored were it not for the fact that both the FAA and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are so dominated by the influence of lobbyist groups like Airlines For America (A4A). That’s the reason we were almost saddled with committee chairman Bill Shuster’s preposterous “privatization” plan for Air Traffic Control when he was literally sleeping with one of A4A’s executives.

The airlines don’t want these sorts of regulations so they generally don’t happen. That’s probably why another proposed feature of this bill which would have put some limits on airlines raising fees was dropped before the final version was released.

But even worse is the complete lack of competition and obvious price-fixing and coordination between the few remaining major carriers. Congress has approved one merger after another until there are only a handful of major airlines left. They have divided up the country like mob bosses carving out territory and they obviously coordinate most price changes and design alterations which cram more and more people into smaller spaces.

If there was actual competition in this field, the airlines would be fighting to provide better services and more comfort to passengers for the best price. Instead, we have the opposite, and for anyone needing to fly coach, the quality of service is a race to the bottom. We shouldn’t have needed more government regulation to see some action on this issue. Sadly, the problem Congress is now seeking a remedy for is one of their own creation.