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Shrinking Airline Seats Could Be Unsafe For Older Travelers, But FAA Study Excludes Them


Loud enough for everyone from the terminal to the plane door to hear, Connie giddily declares to a far less excited passenger standing beside her on the jetway: “We are on a girls’ weekend to the city!”

Connie, and the ‘girls,’ are probably well into their 60s. And, like most of us of a certain age, maybe aren’t as svelte as we once were. As I put my bag up, I see Connie and her crew squeeze into their row beyond mid-cabin. Connie sinks out of sight into a middle seat sandwiched on either side by her travel mates.

For most people, comfort and flying have become oxymorons. Comfort, however, is now being linked to passenger safety and health. Tighter seating is argued to be a threat to a speedy emergency evacuation and even the cause of dangerous health conditions such as blood clots. As reported by Bloomberg Law’s Lillianna Byington, Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, summed up the argument in a public comment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “Overcrowding of the passenger cabin is the single largest threat to passengers’ health and safety.” Kidd, thousands of others, and members of Congress are now weighing in on shrinking airline seat size encouraging the FAA to stop airlines from downsizing seats just as the traveling public’s posteriors are expanding.

In response to Congress, the FAA conducted a study finding that seat size does not slow evacuation time — that is everyone must be out in 90 seconds. The study findings provide the airlines with data to object to calls for federal regulations that might set seat size requirements. Byington cites the head of the National Association Air Carrier Association, George Novak, who remarks that “Passenger comfort is an issue for the airline industry, not the FAA or Congress”

Perhaps. If so, the airline industry may need to revisit who their customers are today and will be tomorrow – and ask how to best serve all of them. Growing passenger posteriors and shrinking seat size is certainly an issue, but so is the age and safety of the flying public.

Business travel is in what many are predicting to be a sustained slump. Leisure travelers are the core of the airline industry’s business model today and for the foreseeable future. According to pre-COVID 2019 passenger data, the 50-plus make up approximately half of the passengers that fly at least once a year to as many as between five to ten leisure flights per year.

Those numbers are likely to increase. In fact, people over 60 are the fastest growing segment of the population. When asked what people want to do in retirement, travel is routinely on the top of the list. They also have the time and money to travel. If they were a country, older consumers would comprise the world’s third largest economic power, following the GDPs of the United States and China.

Despite the growing number of older consumers and their buying power, the FAA did not include the 60-plus passenger (a.k.a. the older consumer) in their seat study. In fact, according to the study (page 20), the contractor conducting the study was “tasked with ensuring that no participants who signed up were older than age 60 due to the increased risk of injury during physical activity.“ Note: According to FAA regulations FAR 121 commercial pilots may fly until age 65. Effectively, 60-something Connie, wedged in between her girlfriends in seat 23B, halfway between rear and mid-cabin exits, is a forgotten passenger and consumer.

With age physical capacity changes, especially for those that do not routinely exercise. One study that assessed physical performance across the life span found that many people in their 50s experience reduced balance and the ability to do chair stands (the capacity to stand from a seated position) – and for those age 60 and older walking speed and endurance decreases. Changes in physical capacity with age can become more challenging, but not so much that a person would consider themselves disabled. Consequently, few older travelers use services reserved for disabled passengers and are considerate of those with greater need.

Rather than reassessing seat size, ease of ingress and egress, and yes, comfort, it appears that the airlines and FAA are asking customers and the public to conform to the most cost-effective seat size and cabin configuration for the industry. It is an interesting approach to consumer experience and service innovation. Perhaps restaurants should crowd more tables and chairs into a limited dining room to increase the number of patrons on any given evening. Hospitals might even consider smaller beds to accommodate more patients to a room, making a double into a triple, why not a quad.

Demography is destiny. Studies to inform public policy that do not include the largest and fastest-growing segment of the public are incomplete at best; at worst they are likely to result in equally deficient policymaking. The airline industry is certainly facing strong economic headwinds, recovery from the pandemic, fuel costs, inflation, staffing, and more. The airline brand that leverages the uptick in passenger demand since 2020 as an opportunity to thread the needle to deliver safety, comfort, performance, and experience to customers of all ages and abilities will become the market winner and standard.

MORE FROM FORBESThe FAA Says Planes Can Be Evacuated In 90 Seconds. New Legislation Calls For A Reality Check.



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