WASHINGTON, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Amid complaints that airline seats have become too small to accommodate the average American, the U.S. government will test how fast passengers can evacuate a plane in setting minimum seat sizes for the first time.
The Federal Aviation Administration will conduct evacuation tests with 720 people over 12 days in November, Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell said at a U.S. House hearing on Thursday.
"Americans are getting bigger and seat size is important but it has to be looked at in the context of safety," Elwell said. "We are going to get you an answer on seat pitch."
Seat pitch - the distance from one seat back to the next - on low-cost carriers Spirit Airlines Inc and Frontier Airlines is among the industry’s tightest at 28 inches (71 cm) in coach class. The average for other mainline economy seats is around 31 inches.
Current rules say airlines must be able to evacuate passengers within 90 seconds and do not set requirements on seat size.
Congress passed a law in October 2018 directing the FAA to set minimum seat standards for pitch, width and length for passenger safety within one year. Elwell said "later this year we're gong to establish the necessary seat pitch, width length based on safety."
In July 2018 -- before the legislation was passed -- the FAA said in response to a petition filed with a federal appeals court that it would not regulate seat size. Airlines’ margins could suffer if they had to reconfigure planes to create more space.
Representative Paul Mitchell, a Republican who is 6 feet, 2 inches (1.9 meters) tall and 240 pounds (109 kg), stood up at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing: "I am not exactly a dainty guy. Why don't you look around the room? There's a lot of not so dainty people," said Mitchell. "I am not sure the models are being used really reflect current air travelers."
American Airlines Group Inc and United Airlines are configuring many of their newest aircraft at 30 inches of seat pitch, while adding premium economy seats at 34 inches.
Earlier this month, Delta Air Lines Inc Chief Executive Ed Bastian defended coach seats in an appearance before the Economic Club of Washington.
"The legroom is fine," said Bastian, who said the airline has not changed coach seat dimensions in a decade. "What you find when you’re flying coach is it’s more entertaining. So, you don’t worry about your leg room." He said the seats may seem smaller because airplanes are more crowded.
Passenger advocates such as FlyersRights.org say U.S. airline seat pitch has shrunk by 3 to 7 inches since 1970 while seat width has decreased by over 1 inch. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)