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House Passes Act That Could Lead to More Comfortable Airline Seats

Board a plane today and you’re likely to get to know your seatmates a lot better than you want to. That could change soon, though thanks to the passage of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act by the House Wednesday afternoon.

The bill, which still faces Senate approval (but is expected to sail through), would extended funding for the FAA for five years, but a rider attached to it—called the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act—would also require the FAA to establish a minimum seat size and amount of leg room per seat.

Proponents are hopeful that will result in roomier seats or at least put a stop to airlines’ practices of cramming more seats on planes to improve revenues, sometimes resulting in as little as 28 inches between rows. It is possible, though, the FAA would lock the size limit where it is today on the most cramped airlines.

Seats weren’t always this tight. Thirty years ago, the average seat width on America and Delta was 19-20 inches, with United offering 19.5-20 inches. Today, American’s minimum seat size is 16.5 inches, Delta’s is 16.79 inches, and United is at 16 inches.

“Safety should not take a back seat, especially a shrunken seat, to airline profits. Tightly cramped seating on aircraft is a safety issue, and will now be taken seriously,” said Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who introduced the SEAT Act, in a statement. “The SEAT Act will ensure that shrinking seats on airplanes are evaluated in the interest of the safety of the flying public.”

Beyond seat size and funding, the Reauthorization Act also forbids carriers from involuntarily removing passengers who have already boarded. That rule comes after a video went viral last April showing an incident on an United Airlines flight.

And in-flight voice calls would be banned as well. While no carrier currently allows these, there’s no legal barrier in place at present preventing an airline from changing its policy.