Blumenthal push for wider airline seats falters in Senate

A United Airlines Boeing 737 at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks

Creative Commons

A United Airlines Boeing 737 at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks

Washington – An effort to require airlines to give passengers larger seats and more legroom failed in the Senate Thursday.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. – who said air travelers were packed into planes “like sardines” – failed on a largely party-line vote of 42-54 on an amendment to a bill to renew the programs of the Federal Aviation Administration through September 2017.

A similar measure died in the House earlier this year.

Blumenthal said average airline seat width has shrunk from 18 to 16.5 inches since the airlines were deregulated in 1978, and leg room has shrunk, on the average, from 35 to 31 inches. The senator said the seat space on American planes are so tight passengers may not be able to safely evacuate in an emergency.

The airlines say its nearly impossible to compare seats made years ago with today’s seats because of the differences in seat shapes and materials.

I was disappointed with the vote,” Blumenthal said., “but the airlines have enormous sway.”

The airlines said making seats wider and giving passengers more legroom would force them to raise fares.

“We commend the Senate for rejecting this attempt to take steps backward toward reregulation, which would make it more difficult for consumers to afford to fly,” said Vaughn Jennings, spokesman for Airlines for America, the industry trade group.

Blumenthal called that “a false and unfounded argument.”

“They’ve been increasing the amounts of seats in the planes and reducing passenger comfort, and they’ve been making skyrocketing profits,” he said.

The Senate on Thursday approved other measures co-sponsored by Blumenthal aimed at making U.S. airports safer in the wake of the terrorist attack on Brussels.

One would strengthen airport employee vetting by increasing the number of workers that would have to undergo background checks, expand the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program and donate unneeded security equipment to foreign airports with direct flights to the United States.

The other was aimed at protecting “soft targets” at airports, such as passenger baggage retrieval areas and airline check in lines, by increasing the number of bomb-sniffing dogs and the number of Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams deployed to inspect travelers to 60 nationwide.

“They are very effective at preventing and deterring attacks,” Blumenthal said of the VIPR teams.

The amendment would also provide additional active-shooter training for law enforcement officers on duty at airports.

The Senate is expected to continue to debate the FAA bill next week.

Blumenthal said he hopes another amendment he supports – which would require airlines to establish a “fatigue risk management plan” for flight attendants – will be considered. He said that amendment would “restore some sanity to our skies by protecting flight attendants from the grueling schedules they too often face.”

Also unresolved is a push by Blumenthal and other Democrats to include in the FAA bill a package of tax breaks for renewable energy sources.

Tax incentives for investment in fuel cells, geothermal and biomass were left out of a tax extenders package Congress approved last year.

“We are pressing very, very hard for this,” Blumenthal said. “Obviously the fuel cell amendment is critical to Connecticut.” Connecticut has a sizable fuel cell industry.

But the Heritage Foundation called the tax breaks “corporate welfare” and warned Republicans against voting for them by saying the vote would count on their annual “report card” on members of Congress.

The House-approved FAA bill would have privatized the nation’s air traffic controllers.  The Senate-passed bill is not expected to do so. That’s another issue that will have to be straightened out by House and Senate negotiators working on a final bill.

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