NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Dogs have it better in the air than coach passengers do. That was the searing comment offered by Charlie Leocha, a consumer representative to a panel set up by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to explore the reality of today’s coach class travel and its possible impacts on passenger health and safety.

Dogs, flying as cargo, are mandated minimum comfort standards by government fiat. Human beings are not given the same niceties, he said. Leocha elaborated in a recent blog post: “Don’t you expect to be treated as well as your dog?” 

That DOT Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection last week heard plenty similar, as a parade of experts weighed in on the agony that is coach class travel.

But there are questions that demand answering, with three at the top of the list:
o Is coach in fact more cramped than ever before?
o Is flying in coach simply more hazardous to your health?
o Are you at higher risk of suffering Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) - a blood clot that in some cases causes quick death? It often has been associated with air travel. Is the prevalence steeper in crowded coach?

A little discomfort - maybe a lot - could be the acceptable price we pay for flying on the cheap. But would we willingly pay it if doing so put our health at risk?

Now factor in a game changer. We are bigger today. The Centers for Disease Control now reports that 34% of American adults are obese. In 1990, 25 years ago, obese adults made up less than 15% of the population in most states, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

Size matters.

“When Boeing designed the 787, it expected that airlines would go with an eight-abreast layout in economy," said commercial pilot Patrick Smith who blogs at AskThePilot.com. "Most carriers, however, have been configuring their 787s for nine abreast. Similarly, the standard layout for the 777 is nine abreast, but some airlines have been going with a tighter, ten-abreast configuration.”

The 787 is the so called Dreamliner, which debuted in 2011. The 777 debuted in 1995 and, at many airlines, is the service mainstay. Either way, add in an extra seat in a coach row on the 777 or 787 - especially when passengers are bigger - and you can picture what happens. It isn’t pretty.

Airplanes are also flying ever fuller. In July 2014, DOT reported that airline system wide load factor was 86.7%. That has become a norm. There just are few empty seats in coach, and so there is a scrum for overhead compartment space and there also may be feverish, even angry, attempts to win seat reassignment. Anecdotally, flight attendants talk about a spike in air rage - but there are no hard numbers to prove or disprove that. But don't forget the Knee Defender kerfuffles.

Probably more worrisome is that cramped coach may lead to a jump in DVT, said Manhattan physician Louis Morledge who focuses on travel medicine. In an interview he stressed that cramped conditions as such do not necessarily produce more DVT. But what does is immobility. And in a crowded plane many passengers may be too timid to demand to get up and walk the aisle for five or ten minutes every hour or so, which is the common self-help preventative measure suggested by experts.

Morledge also noted that on a crowded, cramped flight there may be more pathogens - things that make us sick - in the air, and that’s just a typical byproduct of overcrowding.

And then there is one huge, gnawing worry for all travelers in crowded coached, according to travel expert Joe Brancatelli, who blogs at JoeSentMe.

“By law, you're supposed to be able to evacuate [a plane in an emergency situation] in 90 seconds," he said. "The more tightly seats are cramped together, the less chance that happens.”

Picture a coach compartment, stuffed full with passengers, with carry-ons strewn everywhere. Can you see that plane disgorging its hundreds of passengers in 90 seconds - especially when they are screaming, crying, cursing, freaking out, desperately clinging to their iPads, etc?

Airlines also have been shrinking what’s called pitch, which is the space between a coach seat and one in front of it. On some carriers, pitch is 32”. On others it is as snug as 28”. In pitch every inch makes a difference. Said Brancatelli of a carrier with 30” pitch seats: “You can barely get into them, let alone get out of them in an emergency situation.”

He added: “This is what scares me: a plane incident and people will die because they couldn't get out of their too-tightly-configured seats.” That is frightening. It is ugly. And it is indeed a direct byproduct of ever more cramped coach compartments.

—Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.