The DOT Weighs in on Regulating Legroom

In the wake of the recent debate on reclining seats and the Knee Defender, will the government step in and establish minimum requirements for legroom and seat width?

“There oughtta be a law!”

That’s the reaction of many travelers to the shrinking coach-class seating phenomenon that has given rise to the current debate regarding reclining seats and the Knee Defender.

They have a point: Since the natural forces at play in the marketplace have failed to push the airlines to give flyers adequate seating space, it’s up to the government to step in and establish minimum requirements for legroom and seat width. But will they?

A recent Conde Nast Traveler interview with Anthony Foxx, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, provides some insight into the government’s thinking on the issue. Bottom line: There’s no quick regulatory fix in the pipeline.

In response to a series of pointed questions about the recent flight disruptions related to reclining seat disputes, Foxx expresses some sympathy for coach flyers: “Travelers aren’t sardines.” But, ever the diplomat, he’s also sympathetic to the financial pressures on the airlines: “Airlines are coming out of a very challenging time in which some of them had to go through bankruptcy, and the industry writ large is emerging in a relatively healthy way. Competitive pressures are creating conditions in which airlines are trying to pack as many people into planes as they can.”

Foxx sees those competitive pressures not only as the problem’s cause, but also as its solution. “My hope is that the industry sees these incidents as a message from consumers that maybe they are getting a little too close to that line…. This is an area where the market will hopefully strike the right balance and there won’t have to be some form of intervention by regulation.”

The closest Foxx comes to standing up for consumers is this: “I hope the industry hears me when I say that this is something they need to be paying attention to.”

Unfortunately, that warning is in response to a question regarding some airlines’ plans to add “even more” coach seats. For now, it looks like air travelers can expect little help from the DOT.

Reader Reality Check

Should there be regulations establishing minimum space requirements for airline seating?

This article originally appeared on

By Tim Winship

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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