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— The shrinking space on airplanes is surely uncomfortable, but it might also be dangerous for passengers’ health and safety.

Planes are filled with more passengers than ever before. Fliers are older and heavier. Flight attendants warn about an increase in air rage, and experts question if having rows of seats packed closer together might make it harder for passengers to evacuate after a crash.

A consumer advisory group set up by the Department of Transportation dove into all those issues Tuesday at a public hearing as part of its role to make non-binding suggestions to government regulators.

Charlie Leocha, the consumer representative on the committee, said the government sets standards for the conditions for dogs flying as cargo but doesn’t dictate minimum space standards for passengers.

“In a world where animals have more rights to space and food than humans,” Leocha said, “it is time that the DOT and FAA take a stand for humane treatment of passengers.”

Fliers last summer squeezed into the least amount of personal space in the history of flying. In July, U.S. airlines sold a record 87.8 percent of seats on domestic flights, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statics. And that figure does not include all the seats occupied by passengers who redeemed frequent flier miles or airline employees flying for free.

“Unfortunately, the days of the empty middle seat are a thing of the past,” said Julie Frederick, a representative for the American Airlines flight attendants union.

Following the implementation of checked-bag fees in 2008, Frederick said, more and more passengers are carrying on bags, fighting for overhead bin space. That anger carries over through the flight as passengers bump elbows on armrests and bang their knees against tray tables.

Questions were also raised if the increased density of seats means passengers won’t be able to evacuate fast enough after a crash.

The Federal Aviation Administration runs various tests including how fast passengers can evacuate a plane.

But Cynthia Corbertt, a human factors researcher with the FAA, testified that it conducts those tests using planes with 31 inches between each row of seats. Many passenger jets today have less legroom. For instance, United Airlines has 30 inches of room, known as pitch, on some jets; Spirit Airlines offers 28 inches.

Southwest unveils new seating for 737

Southwest Airlines Co. will give passengers something extra with its newly designed aircraft seats — more than one-half inch of extra width.

At 17.8 inches across, the bottom seat cushions will be the widest in the coach cabin of any Boeing Co. 737 in the U.S., according to Southwest, the biggest operator of 737s. The plane is the world’s most widely flown jetliner.

The more expansive seats represent a departure from recent trends in the airline industry, where passengers have seen their personal space shrink as carriers pack more people on each plane. Southwest will benefit too: The new seats will also reduce fuel consumption by taking 200 pounds off the weight of each aircraft.

Passengers won’t see the new seats until mid-2016, aboard Southwest’s newest Boeing 737-800s. They’ll also be on the Boeing 737 Max, set to debut in mid-2017. Southwest will be the first commercial airline to fly that model.

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