A frequent flier's views on flying and travel

Seat Pitch Seat Pinch

Originally this post was going to be titled “I can’t fly like Cathy Rigby”, but I did not mean that in the Peter Pan sense, with wires and a harness. I mean that I am not a flexible short gymnast, and that I can not fit in some economy seats these days. So why is that a blog topic?

It’s really simple, it’s called discrimination, and it goes right to the heart of what “Common Carrier” means in US law. Let me back up two steps before going forward, and explain what a Common Carrier is, and why this matters, especially to me. Certain modes of public conveyance, like airlines, buses, ferries, trains, are required (by law) to provide equal access and equal levels of service to everyone (including those with disabilities), and they can not discriminate or only provide services to a select or preferred set of clients. These are what we call (in the USA) Common Carriers. Yes, they can provide extra services and premium treatment (eg: a First Class seat for extra $$) but a base level of service must be provided to all, at a single fee.

But in the law, all does not really mean “all”, it means common. An airline is not required to provide you a comfortable seat if you are 7’4” tall, that is too “uncommon” of a height. But if you are blind, they are required to allow your seeing eye dog to fly for free, because blindness is more common. And this universal access is specifically required in the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) which applies directly to airlines. These are the regulations that we all know, that apply if you are in a wheelchair, or otherwise handicapped. Personally, I think it’s great, and I have never had a problem waiting by the gate while the staff assist someone in a wheelchair or who is blind onto the plane before everyone else. It’s just a common courtesy.

Which gets us right back to common. And uncommon. You see, I am nearly 6’5” tall (195 cm), and with the way things are going in the airline industry, I have gone from being somewhat comfortable in economy, to being rather snug fitting, to the point now where I do not fit. Physically my legs just will not fit in some of the newest tight pitch seating arrangements in budget airlines. My legs DO NOT fit. In my opinion, these airlines (in pursuit of extra revenue) have violated both the spirit and intention of the Common Carrier clause by which they are allowed to operate.

Balderdash! You may say. If you don’t fit in coach, then buy an Eplus or Business class seat.

Bullshit I say in reply. My height is not that uncommon, I should not have to pay extra to be able to fly, and this is something the FAA needs to get involved in. Airlines need to follow the law. Yes, we all know the FAA bows scrapes and grovels itself in front of those who pay their bills (the airlines), but as a Government agency they need to act on this.

sardines can

Let’s look at some numbers:

Percent of USA who are blind: less than 2% (6 mil ppl. National Federation of the Blind)

Percent who use a wheelchair: about 1% (3.3 mil ppl. US Census statistics)

Percent who are over 6’4”: about 1% of men, <1% of women (US Census statistics)

(And this goes up to 1.5% if you only consider males aged 18-24)

So, there you have it. The Federal Government (via the ADA/ACAA) require common carriers, including airlines, to accommodate people with disabilities, yet they have not yet required these same airlines to accommodate an equally large segment of the population with a physical condition we can not control… Our height!

As I said before, I am not expecting airlines to handle someone who is 7’4”, that is uncommon. But 6’4” is clearly common enough that a “Common Carrier” needs to handle us. The way the FAA presently ‘interprets’ the ACAA is that the airlines do not need to make ANY consideration for the height of their passengers, and can continue to compress seat rows even closer together if they wish. Very soon, if your name is not Cathy Rigby, you may be forced to buy First Class seats for all your air travel. And that is just RIDICULOUS.

And let’s think about the unthinkable… An emergency evacuation. With tighter seat pitches, more passengers, and a real-world mix of young and old passengers. Be sure to include 2% blind passengers, and 1% with walking disabilities. Throw in a few families with young children, and two adults who have with infants on their laps. Also include a few of those idiots who insist on grabbing their carry-on and duty free bags during an evacuation. And for more realism, add in at least one service animal, like a seeing eye dog. Realism. Not a good picture. Which is why airlines are now using computer model simulations instead of real people. Because they KNOW they can not meet the 90 second evacuation rules with these new seat pitches and realistic passenger loads.

Even worse, the NTSB tells us that in the event of a crash landing, we should lean forward, put our heads down and clasp our hands over the back of our head. Well that is simply impossible when you are even 6 feet tall (182 cm) in these tight pitch seats. So is the NTSB giving up and telling tall passengers that airplane safety procedures can’t help us, because we don’t fit in the newer tighter seats. You know what? That’s ridiculous.

RunWayGirl legs

A 6-foot woman in an economy seat

This is so out of control that even the people who design airplane seats admit that regulation is now needed; “You can only take [Seat Pitch] so far” … “I’m not surprised that it’s reaching a point where regulators are going to be involved. There are all of the technical considerations of crash testing at minimum pitches.” (Matthew Fiddimore, via

So, I have a proposal. Actually three proposals.

1) We eliminate the use of the misleading “Seat Pitch” statistic that is used (and mis-used) so often. Seat pitch means NOTHING unless you also state how thick the back of a seat is. What matters is true legroom (knee space), the distance from the back of the seat in front of you to where your back fits in your own seat. That is the space within which your knees have to fit. Measure that, and regulate a MINIMUM knee space, enough space so 99% of the population (a 6’4″ person) can fit in a seat, and can brace in a crash the way the NTSB recommends.

2) The FAA take action, and make it US law that no carrier may operate to or from (take off or land) a 50+ seat aircraft in US airspace unless the seats meet (exceed) that spacing.

3) Evacuation demonstrations must use real people, no more than 1/3 of those participating can be between 20 and 40 years of age, 3% must have a physical disability, 5% are toddlers, and 5% are carrying infants < 2 yrs old, just like a real passenger load.

Yeah, I know. That would require the FAA to do something for passengers that the airlines won’t like. Remember, this is the same agency that allows pilots and FA’s to work for more hours than commercial truck drivers are allowed to drive.

So, FAA, step up, and do your job on Seat Pitch. At least this one time help us, the common passenger. Please, before “economy seating” becomes a modern version of a medieval torture for the tall… Or a death trap for all.

Vlad Impaler

Some legal stuff…

A common carrier, such as a railroad, airline, or business that offers public transportation, customarily transports property and individuals from one location to another, thus offering its services for the hire of the general population (

Airlines, which are not specifically covered by the ADA, are prohibited from discriminating against disabled individuals under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), 49 U.S.C.A. § 1301 note, 1374, 1374 note, which was enacted in 1986. The ACAA provides that “…no air carrier may discriminate against any … handicapped individual, by reason of such handicap, in the provision of air transportation” (42 U.S.C.A. § 1374). Like the ADA, it further provides that air carriers must make “reasonable accommodations” for disabled individuals traveling by air. (

PS: Thanks to Twitter friends/associates @RunwayGirl @AirlineFlyer @ThatJohn @MiddleSeatView @LothropLothrop @BLGranucci for inspiring this post. Please note that they are not legally or in any other way responsible for the contents of this post. Only I am.

For further reading, this is a link (via @runwaygirl) to some good articles about seat pitch. Seat Pitch

April 2015, via @Flyertalk, maybe DOT will do something? Cramped Cabins

Update: I learned that Airbus apparently fudged & manipulated their evacuation demo of the A380 back in 2006 – A real safety issue, but swept under the rug, and now it’s worse with tighter pitches and even more seats! A380 Evac


Your thoughts? Can we do anything about this??

5 comments on “Seat Pitch Seat Pinch

  1. Karlene
    March 16, 2015

    JR, I could not agree with you more! I flew 5.5 hours in a 737-900 and couldn’t walk normal the two days following because my hip hurt so bad from sitting crumpled and twisted in a seat that did not fit my legs. While I’m not 6’4″, my legs are every inch of 33″… and I don’t fit comfortably either. Then have the passenger in front lean back. I’m toast. I’m also with you. What do we do? Seriously, the jumpseat is not officially more comfortable than a passenger seat for a tall person.
    Thanks for a great post!


    • jlroehr
      March 16, 2015

      I share your pain. My inseam is 36″ and any rules that were designed in the 1970’s just don’t fit today’s taller population, of men and of women. The only solution is that the FAA grow a “pair” and stand up to the industry on this. Otherwise, it will just get worse.


  2. glen
    March 23, 2015

    I am 6 ft 2″ tall I find the seat pitch ok on Aus and NZ airlines by biggest pain right now is seat width on most Boeings . I find them a right pain especially with a large person next to me.


  3. kendall44
    March 29, 2015

    FlyersRights is pushing for legislation that mandates decent seatspace, support us:


  4. Houston L
    June 27, 2016

    Though I may not be 6’4″, I still feel your pain. It’s absolutely ridiculous how airlines keep trying to cram more and more seats on an airplane and sacrificing space and comfort in the process whilst still charging similar fares. It’s absolutely infuriating that airlines are supposedly “cheating” the federal requirements with skewed computer simulations as you had mentioned. Even more frustrating is the fact that there’s nothing that we can do to stop this issue as every airline is doing the same thing. I can just picture things getting worse and worse until eventually we’ll have to (God forbid) stand on an airplane like we do on the subway.


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