Seat Shrinkage

A recent federal court ruling has confirmed what those of us who travel frequently already know:  the passenger seating space on airplanes is shrinking.

A lawsuit brought by a group called Flyers Rights challenged the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure to consider regulations to address minimum standards for passenger seating.   The passenger space issue involves two basics of airline travel — the width of the seats themselves and the seating “pitch,” which is the distance between the rows of airline seats on a plane.  According to Flyers Rights, the width of the seats has declined from 18.5 inches in the early 2000s to 17 inches now.  And the airlines are constantly reducing the “pitch,” too — from 35 inches to as low as 28 inches.  Narrower seats, and tighter “pitch,” allow airlines to cram even more seats onto planes.

28up-legroom-master675Because nobody really cares about passenger comfort on planes, the Flyers Rights lawsuit was argued to the court as presenting a safety issue.  Flyers Rights contended that the combination of shrinking seats and expanding passengers would make it harder to evacuate passengers in the event of an emergency and might also cause more passengers to develop deep vein thrombosis and blood clots because they can’t move their legs.  The federal court hearing the case ordered the FAA to at least consider these issues and decide whether to issue new regulations.

Anybody who travels much knows these passenger space issues deep in their bones.  Most flights these days are totally full, and it’s not difficult to feel like a sardine as you wedge yourself into your narrow seat, put your carry-on under the seat in front of you and thereby restrict your leg room, and then find your legs clamped when the person in the next row up “reclines” their seat by a few inches, directly on top of your kneecaps.  And the cramped feeling is exacerbated when, as is often the case, the person sitting next to you is overflowing their designated seat space.  If, like me, you typically work on a plane and need to retrieve things from the carry-on under the seat, you need to make many minute adjustments, and cram your face against the seat back in front of you, just to reach your carry-on and get out pen, paper, and reading material.

It’s hard for me to believe that any actual study would show that an airplane is as readily evacuated with narrow seats and 28 inches of space between rows as it would be with wider seats and 35 inches of passenger maneuvering room.  But forget the safety issue for a minute — I’m wondering whether any airline will start marketing itself as the humane airline that actually offers more leg room for those of us in coach.

Hey, a traveler can dream, can’t he?

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Droning About Drones

Recently the Federal Aviation Administration announced that Americans who own “hobbyist” drones — those that weigh between .55 pounds and 55 pounds — must register their drones starting on December 21.  Registration is free if it occurs before January 20; after that, it will cost $5.00.  Failure to register can result in civil penalties of up to $27,500, or criminal fines of up to $250,000 — and the FAA estimates that, through 2020, it will cost $56 million to operate its drone registration program.

dronesteaserIn our outsized federal government, the institution of a new program is a barely noticeable event.  Still, $56 million over 5 years seems like a lot of money to me, so I wonder:  are the operation of hobbyist drones really a problem that can be dealt with through registration?  Notwithstanding the institution of a nationwide registration program, the answer isn’t very clear.  In 2014, the FAA received 238 reports of unsafe drone use; so far in 2015, it has received 1,133 reports of unsafe drone operations.  The FAA also reports that pilot sightings of drones are increasing.  So far, there hasn’t been a catastrophic incident in which a drone has produced a safety problem by, for example, colliding with a commercial aircraft.

Although you see humorous commercials featuring skies filled with drones ready to dive-bomb workers heading to their cars, and drones seem to be prominent in oddball news stories, most of us have never seen a drone being used — at least I haven’t.  That may be about to change.  The federal government forecasts that as many as 1 million drones will be sold in America this year to hobbyists, and drones outfitted with cameras are available for less than $600.  So, if you want to spy on your neighbors, catch people misbehaving in their cars, or try to get footage that you can sell to a website, buying your own drone won’t break the bank.

Maybe that means there will be a lot more drones overhead in 2016 and beyond, and the droneless among us will come to view them as colossal pests someday soon.  But still — is requiring registration by the federal government, and the institution of some new bureaucratic office of Federal Drone Registration And Enforcement, really a necessary or appropriate response?  Isn’t the better approach to simply ban the use of drones in the areas where they might create a safety issue, such as around airports, above highways, or in places that might interfere with the work of firefighters or emergency personnel, and then prosecute people who violate such safe-use laws?  And how is the mere act of registration going to ensure safe or appropriate operation of drones in any event?

I’m all for being proactive in trying to make sure that new technology is used safely and properly, but I also think we are way too quick to establish costly nationwide programs that don’t really address the problem.