RICHMOND >> It's not fashionable right now to talk about giving the feds something new to do. Both the angry and the calm, from sea to shining sea, express cravings for de-regulation rather than more. But any of them who have flown economy lately may be a little excited about this proposal for a new layer of government supervision.

Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee wants the feds to set a minimum size for your economy seat. While he's dreaming about this, airlines are flying the other way, squeezing in extra rows. They are closing gaps when there aren't any.

For the airlines, it's all about money, and if you're really grumpy about your leg room, they'll sell you a few extra inches for several extra dollars — if any of those "economy plus" spaces are available. Apparently when you jam up knees, you create a new market for making a buck — just like cutting out the food and then selling bag lunches.

For Rep. Cohen, it's partly a matter of comfort, but it's mostly about safety. He says the Federal Aviation Administration needs to get out there and test whether passengers can evacuate these slimmer, closer seats in an emergency. One airline spokesman says the congressman's concern is "absurd," but Cohen thinks it's an accident waiting to happen.


It's not just your knees that will suffer. Seat width, says Cohen, was 18 inches in the 1970s. That was back when flying was more of a novelty and certainly more fun. Eighteen inches, incidentally, is pretty standard for some chairs in your house and the seat at your computer at the office. But while home and work seating has stayed pretty much the same, airline seats have shriveled to 16.5 inches, while Americans are growing. It's no wonder your seatmate sometimes oozes into your space.

That shrinkage cuts it tight for Americans whose rear ends have indeed expanded while the seats narrowed. An Internet report indicates that American backsides were 14 inches for males and 14.4 inches for females in a government study in 1962. When the Air Force for some reason did a study in 2002, males and females measured out at more than 15 inches. Barely allows for layering your clothing.

So, lucky passengers get skinny seatmates and the unlucky face four hours or more with the other end of the spectrum, the passenger who needs a seat belt extender. Representative Cohen didn't say anything about aisles, but they seem skinnier, too, especially if you're dragging a carry-on with a winter coat over your arm and certainly when you need the lavatory and the cart is there.

But the airlines are always thinking, and a recent Internet report offered diagrams of some of the wild things that may or may not ever see 30,000 feet. Consider the layered seating that Airbus has on the drawing boards. It's sort of like building a loft in your bedroom or giving your kid an upper bunk for his friends. You are on the main floor, steps lead up to the folks above you — not like the luxury lounge upstairs in behemoth planes, but right above you. Evacuation from there might be pokey.

Then comes the doughnut idea. Airbus says putting people in a circular pattern would create more seats. The diagram looks like theater in the round, but the show will never go on. It may, however, be more acceptable than Ryanair's abandoned plan to strap in everyone standing up. Nothing like the friendly skies.

Ruth Bass hates it when the seat ahead flops into her lap. Her web site is