Traveling is wonderful, joyous, and beautiful. But more and more these days, the actual act of flying is freaking awful. While the ability to seemingly break the laws of physics for a few hundred bucks and cross hundreds of miles in mere hours will never be less than awesome, it’s the process around air travel we all hate. Whipsawing ticket prices, useless time-wasting security procedures, and that ever-shrinking coach section are making us all miserable.
Now it’s getting worse: Guess what? Coach might literally kill you.
The problem is that the coach section has been getting more cramped for years. It’s a function of airline economics; the more seats you have, the more tickets you can sell and the more money you can make. However, airlines are shrinking seats, it turns out, much faster than the government can compensate for it.
The Daily Beast has an in-depth look at flying coach and has discovered that the FAA is using outmoded studies and methods to determine the safety of those narrow seats. The FAA has two metrics of safety: One, a packed plane should be able to be completely emptied in ninety seconds, using actual humans to flee, with half the exit doors disabled and poor lighting conditions. The second are crash test dummies in airline seats. Your typical coach class seat needs to be able to withstand sixteen Gs, or forces sixteen times as strong as gravity, roughly twice as much as the Apollo spacecraft dealt with on re-entry. For flight attendant seats, there also needs to be a 35-inch “head strike zone” that allows people in the seats to absorb those forces without hitting something.
For passengers, though, that appears not to be a concern:
The two most significant changes in seat design are a move away from bulky upholstered seats to slender shells and the addition to seatbacks of video screens for in-flight entertainment. In fact, DOT documents reveal that testing seatbacks equipped with video screens for blunt trauma impact destroyed so many of the expensive screens that the FAA allowed the manufacturers to substitute cheaper replicas.
As for those static tests, advocacy group Flyers Rights notes that the FAA doesn’t seem to be compensating for the larger Americans among us. See, as coach becomes more densely packed, aisles get narrower. Humans, especially Americans, have not been getting narrower, and that means the FAA’s tests might be excessively optimistic. That’s especially true if there’s just a single aisle on a plane. And, just to make this all worse, as the Daily Beast lays out, the 737, a plane first engineered in the 1960s, hasn’t changed much in terms of its cabin, aside from seat density. And neither Boeing nor the FAA will release the evacuation data.
To be fair, as every traveler has heard repeatedly, you’ve only got a small chance of dying in a plane crash. In 2016, there was just one fatality for every 10,769,320 travelers. But the point of concern here is simple: If you are in a crash, and you’re in coach, it may be far more fatal than it should be.