Pair Srinrat/ShutterstockRemember back in the day when airplane travel felt so luxurious? Airlines used to hand out a meal and drink at every flight; now we’re lucky if we get a bag of pretzels, even flying from the best airport in the world. With all the other cutbacks in flight service, you might assume a negative attitude is making the seats feel smaller. We have some bittersweet news: It’s not in your head.
In the 1970s, the room between seats was 35 inches; by 2015, it was down to 31 inches, according to Fortune. Basically, you have four inches less of your legroom, which is why it feels like there’s barely room to cross your legs. Oh, and some airlines have as little as 28 inches in front of your seat. Yikes. (Weirdly enough, though, the middle seat could become the roomiest.)
But that’s not the only thing that shrunk—your seat itself is smaller, too. In the 1970s, a 17-inch seat width was standard, according to CNN. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, seat widths grew with the population’s growing waist sizes, and 18.5 inches became the norm. Fast-forward to 2013 and the average was back down to 17 inches, and some seats were as small as 16 inches.
There’s no law telling airlines how small is too small. Last year, the Senate rejected a proposal to have the Federal Aviation Authority set minimum seat size standards.
But discomfort isn’t the only issue. (After all, even economy seats are comfy if you follow these tricks to sleep well on a plane.) Advocacy group Flyers Rights petitioned the FAA to require bigger seats because of safety issues. If seats are too small for passengers, they won’t be able to evacuate quickly, the group argued.
At first, the FAA threw out the petition, saying seat size wouldn’t affect evacuations. (FYI: In case of emergency, this is how to survive a plane crash.) But a federal appeals court just ruled in favor of Flyers Rights in what’s been dubbed the “Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat.” Judge Patricia Millett said because the FAA hadn’t considered seat dimensions in evacuation tests before doesn’t mean it’s not important. “That makes no sense,” she writes in her opinion of the case.
Judge Millett compared it to a studying tooth decay only based on the sugar people ate. “The study’s silence on the question of brushing and flossing would surely not imply that brushing and flossing have no effect on the risk of getting a cavity,” she writes.
Unfortunately, the court decision doesn’t necessarily mean roomy seats are on their way. For now, it just forces the FAA to find out if a small seat size could be a safety risk. If it does turn out to be a hazard, you might find your seats get back to a comfortable size. Until then, find out which plane seat is best for your needs.