The FAA and Seats

There have been those who suggest that airlines charge us by the pound for our airline tickets, with some interesting retorts and replies. The Flyertalk thread is intriguing in that regard. In the end, it is perhaps fair to say that each passenger on a flight contributes to the overall cost of the flight? For example, an empty flight (0 passengers) will nonetheless require fuel, pilot, aircraft depreciation, ground services, and likely flight attendants whose service seems to be dictated by plane capacity rather than occupancy, according to Simple Flying (I claim no expertise in FAA regulation or airline practices, feel free to write and correct me). Is it possible that the number of seats dictates the number of flight attendants (who are there for the safety of the passengers, perhaps even if there are not any passengers?). More on that below. 
So, that aircraft does not move place to place for nothing. Those costs are likely "fixed," regardless of the fact that the plane is empty or full. When you add the first passenger (and luggage), the plane becomes a little heavier. Because of this, it will require a little more fuel to make it to its destination, We might find that the unoccupied flight is not required to carry the drink cart and cookies, so the first passenger might be responsible for the addition of that weight, and the fuel to move it. We can keep adding passengers and their bags up to some fixed weight overall; the airframe is limited to some maximum take off weight.
There is another physical limitation for consideration, the space inside the aircraft. There is only so much space to work with. Some portion has to be occupied by cockpit, lavatories, and other facilities. When the necessities are accommodated, there is some net space left for us passengers. That space is fixed by the dimensions of the aircraft. And, we consumers essentially compete for that space in terms similar to the adages of real estate in the earth-bound world. We use money to do that on some airlines, but a few with festival seating allow us to depend on speed and agility. 
As the "the late Lord Harold Samuel," a British "real estate tycoon" purportedly once said (according to the NY Times): "There are three things that matter in property: location, location, location." Do you want the window seat, the aisle, the exit row? There is some merit in the location debate.
But, after location, there is also significant interest in amenities. Perhaps I would rather live in a nice duplex in Rancho Cucamonga instead of a storage shed in Beverly Hills? Thus, the airlines have widely adopted "4 cabin classes" according to Cheap Flights: "economy, premium economy, business, and first class." Thus, we are separated by our class, and then we argue over location in the neighborhood to which we are thus relegated.
There is a horrible joke repeated about a passenger to Hawaii that sits in First Class despite having a coach (economy) ticket. The passenger denies several attempts by the flight attendant to be relocated to the coach cabin. The pilot supposedly intervenes, whispers to the passenger, and this prompts an immediate relocation to coach. The amazed flight attendant asks "how?" and the pilot explains simply "I just told the passenger First Class isn't going to Hawaii." Bad joke. It usually is derogatory to some group. But, it aptly demonstrates the main point that the whole airplane is going undeniably to the same destination, regardless of which seat you get.
That said, we all have our preferences regarding class of travel and location of seat (window, aisle), though I have yet to meet anyone that prefers the center seat. And, the airlines charge more based on their perceptions of our preferences. First Class costs more than business, which costs more than premium economy, which costs more than economy. The seats by the window and aisle cost more than the center seat, and the exit row costs more than some of the others (leg room). There are various machinations on the value assigned to seats, and thus the asking price for them.
It used to be common for us economy passengers to improve our lot in life after the boarding door closed (not to first or business, but to the premium economy). The attendants have pretty much quit allowing that, but they seem less troubled if you upgrade yourself out of that center seat (if the flight is not oversold and these days most are oversold and packed).
The main points remain, there are fixed costs associated with the plane flying, marginal costs of adding weight (passengers or freight or fuel, etc.). And, there is only so much room inside the plane with which those crafty seating architects can work. In the spirit of our American free economy, enter our savior the United States Congress. Will Rogers once asked "If pro is the opposite of con, what is the opposite of Congress?” That is downright funny.
USA Today reports that back in 2018 Congress decided to get into the space-planning business. In its legislation funding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA):
"Congress set requirements for the agency to study how seat size affects aircraft safety, including evaluating how evacuation testing on airplanes is conducted."
This was purportedly in response to a hue and cry from consumers that airline "seats have continued to shrink by some airlines, and people are continuing to get larger." We are getting larger, see Gluttony in America (August 2018) and I am What I am (July 2013). Note to the reader, in 2013 I was very obese, morbid, exercise-challenged, you decide how to describe it.
The consumer rights groups (consumers) are advocating for federal regulation of "minimum seat dimensions since 2015." This is not an effort for government to dictate how large the smallest storage shed in Beverly Hills is (first class), but rather to dictate how small and how close together those duplexes and triplexes in Rancho Cucamonga are (before you write to tell me how expensive and elite Rancho Cucamonga is, note that I only picked that town because it is also in southern California and I really like that name).
The USA Today article goes on to describe how some people find the airplane seats uncomfortable. Some are described as "plus-size travelers," while others as "a little more hippy." They decry the size of the seats and believe that the design of seat layouts create challenges for some people in ingress and egress. This, they argue, makes the seat layout an issue of safety in addition to comfort. They argue that the airlines should be regulated and required to change their design so that all the seats on the airplane accommodate the concerns of all potential passengers.
Note that it is likely that no two passengers are any more similar than any two snowflakes. We may or may not have similarities with each other. I know people who want to be the first on the plane (they pay extra for this), and others who insist on not boarding until the last call (they hate sitting in the aluminum tube). There are a multitude of different needs, preferences, or requirements we might bring as consumers.
When one tries to accommodate everyone in an equal manner, some turn to a mathematical term used in fractions, the "lowest common denominator." Some believe that use of this phrase is pejorative or insulting. The Cambridge Dictionary includes a definition "used to refer in a disapproving way to the sort of people in society who are least intelligent." But others use the classification simply to describe accommodating the broadest possible need or requirement, and intend no pejorative inference (though some might perceive one nonetheless). Do you ever wonder if some are actually trying to be offended? You haven't! Well!
In the budget imposed testing regarding seat size, safety and evacuation, the federal government (FAA) reportedly "studied real-world airplane evacuations." Despite being "real-world," the FAA elected not to "use an actual aircraft." Huh? And, in another curiosity the participants in the test "were limited to able-bodied people between the ages of 18 and 60." Huh? The government admits that this "is not a representative cross-section," but argues that some uncited "research ethics standards prohibit older, younger, or disabled people from participating."
Several points jump to mind. As one of the "plus size" advocates noted in the USA Today article, passengers who need more space could "have two seats." Perhaps the challenge with that is that it may also mean "pay for two seats," and flying is rarely cheap. Or, any passenger that wishes to could buy larger accommodations in premium, business, or first class. In some planes, first class includes a seat that reclines into a flat bed. I have never stayed in such accommodations, but I have toured through once or twice on my way to the cheap seats in the back. In other words, there are some accommodations currently available to those who need a bit more room and who choose to partake.
Now, let's get to the unpopular part. There is cost. The person that needs two seats will pay two fares. The person that upgrades to first class will pay for it. Business Insider says "the cost of first-class airfare can be astronomical." I would not know, I ride in the back of the plane. There is cost. The debate at this point seems to be less about there being cost and more about who should pay it, and why. Should airline seats be wider? Should they be further apart?
The further apart and wider the seats are, the potential exists for less seats on the plane. In one recent incident, an airline responded to its COVID challenges with crew by removing seats, according to the Independent (back to the question above is it the passenger number or the capacity number that dictates attendant requirements?). Likely in relation to the regulations above, or similar, removal of some volume of seats apparently allowed that airline to classify planes in a different passenger capacity and thus fly with one less flight attendant. Some might see that as a cost issue, but the article focuses on the COVID-19 workforce impact and easing the challenges of being short-staffed. 
We have to remember that plane still costs something to fly (fixed costs). And, if there are less seats the price of those seats will either increase or the airline will make less money from the flight. Sure, the less seats may mean less weight, so perhaps the marginal costs improve, but less paying passengers also. So, who should pay the cost for the accommodation for the "plus size" and the "more hippy?" Should those passengers pay by buying bigger or more seats? Or, should the price of everyone's tickets rise so that the smallest seats on the plane are comfortable for all? Should the airline pay through higher costs? In reality, if that is the outcome we will all pay because the airline will pass that cost on to us, the passengers that neither need nor want the wider seats. In the same manner today, there are airlines I strive to avoid (I spend elsewhere) based on their seats, their service, etc. I am making economic choices. 
I know that Stadler and Waldorf are in the balcony right now: "what does this have to do with workers' comp?" (I love those guys). Well, there are are a couple of points. First, for employee safety, the FAA should be evaluating the feasibility of safe egress in an emergency. While we may not be able to ethically use someone with a disability, they can directed some participants to use crutches, leg braces, or similar tools (some men are asked to use tools to better appreciate pregnancy). I am not suggesting there is a perfect way to simulate real world conditions, but there has to be something better than claiming we cannot try. In short, real tests should be run on real aircraft. Safety matters, and it should be taken seriously.
In a broader context, however, this whole analysis comes back to the minority out there that incessantly scream for federalization of workers' compensation. They do not want the differences of a seemingly free market. If wider coach seats sold airline tickets, some airline would be marketing that niche. Instead, we all buy tickets based on price/convenience/perception and therefore finding the price point is perhaps more in the airline's interest than offering their "wider, better seats" promotion. Since no airline is leaning into the "we have more uniform comfort and its worth the price," the consumer advocates are of a mindset to force a lowest common denominator onto the marketplace.
Would federalization of workers compensation be less invasive? Would policies that are not popular with the consumers (workers and employers) find their way into federal regulation through the politics of Progress (note the capitalization, thanks Will Rogers)? Would a relentless march of bureaucratic layering work to the benefit of the worker and employer, or would it fund studies, foster excuses, and build bureaucracy? Government grew in the twentieth century (expanding to about seven times its size through and after the "New Deal"). Government has shown a real aptitude for growing. There are now almost 200,000 pages of regulation in the Federal Register. Government is good at regulating, and some government has demonstrated being better at it than other government. 
I often hear the call for standardizing workers' compensation: "let's have all the systems the same, consistency is good." You might be eager to say that if you think that central control would mean comp tomorrow in every state could look like it does today in whatever you think is currently the best state system. But, what if it means every state tomorrow will look like whatever you think is the worst state system? What if the regulations require every airline to be like the one you don't like to fly? What if the regulators in Washington built a bureaucracy that is unresponsive and ineffective?
Chris Daughtry penned I'm Going Home, and he cautioned:
Be careful what you wish for
'Cause you just might get it all
You just might get it all
And then some you don't want
So, ponder that as you dream of, or advocate for, federalization of workers' compensation. As you ponder, strive to come up with one federal agency that you believe has efficiently and effectively accomplished its legislative mandate and mission. By efficiency and effectively, I mean objectively remedied its core purpose, not become overgrown or expanded, and delivered on budget. One. I'll wait. I will suggest only that progress may be elusive and challenging. 
Perhaps, we can each find things in a state's system we find appealing and others that may be vexing. Perhaps, in the micro chasm (comparatively) of the states, we find imperfection and frustration. And, also strength, symmetry, and success with local issues on a local level? Would the world of work be better in a federal system, or would there be similar strengths countered by imperfections? Would all workers or all employers be better off, worse off, or would the strengths and weaknesses just be more uniform? Would every passenger pay for the unwanted and personally unneeded wider seat that is mandated by the particular potential needs of another? Be careful what you wish for, and beware the creation of yet another bureaucracy far, far, away in Washington. 
By Judge David Langham
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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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