Seats in the economy class cabin on board an American Airlines jet
Photograph by Brent Lewin — Getty Images
By David Z. Morris
April 9, 2016

To the sound of groaning passengers everywhere, the Senate has rejected Senator Chuck Schumer’s attempt to get the FAA to create minimum seat size and legroom requirements for airlines. The proposal failed despite Schumer rallying our most celebrated gangly President to the cause, according to Politico.

“The great Abraham Lincoln was asked how long a man’s legs should be, and he famously answered, ‘Long enough to reach from the body to the ground,’” Schumer said on Thursday. “If you asked a major airline today how long should a man’s legs be, they’d say, ‘Short enough to miss the tray table.’”

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The proposal was offered during ongoing negotiations around FAA reauthorization, which has already seen the defeat of more radical proposals, such as the establishment of an independent air traffic control body. The Senate version of the bill does now include provisions for better cockpit barriers and other security enhancements.

Schumer’s wit didn’t seem to help his fight for legroom, and the amendment went down 42-54. Senator John Thune, one of the opposing votes, said he feared regulating seat size would increase costs and limit options for passengers.

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Airline coach seats have on average shrunk steadily since the 1970s, from 18 to 16 ½ inches wide, with legroom dropping from 35 inches down to 31. But this isn’t a simple matter of airlines mistreating passengers—putting more seats on a plane lets airlines charge less for each of them. Lawmakers like Thune seem to agree with the airlines’ stance that competition, not regulation, should determine how highly passengers value their comfort.

The FAA is currently operating under a temporary extension that ends in July.

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