Air­planes grow, but your seat shrinks

jets are get­ting big­ger, yet, inch by inch, our per­sonal space dwin­dles. how the %*#+ does that work?

Popular Science - - CONTENTS - by ryan bradley • il­lus­tra­tion by moron eel

While I origamied my fairly av­er­age 5-foot11, 172-pound frame into po­si­tion, I re­al­ized I needed some­thing from my bag. I leaned for­ward and hit my head on the seat in front of me. OK, go­ing straight in wasn’t an op­tion; I’d have to veer out of my al­lot­ted space.

To my left sat a girthy man, his aisle-side arm rest­ing upon his prodi­gious belly, the other spilling over the arm­rest and nearly into my lap. To my right, by the win­dow, was a short but still quite stocky fel­low; he wore large head­phones, the bill of his ball cap tilted low.

I be­gan mov­ing, very slightly, this way and that, in a man­ner not un­like some­one par­al­lel park­ing a semi. I tilted my torso down into the space near the shorter man’s legs and turned to face the aisle-side girthy man, my nose sud­denly an inch from his arm. He re­coiled. I apol­o­gized, and ges­tured to­ward my back­pack.

As I care­fully dug around by my feet, a tod­dler wailed, and I thought, That is the sound we are all mak­ing on the in­side. Our bod­ies want to move, and air­planes try to keep us still. We spill into each other’s spa­ces, bang­ing el­bows and heads as we do what we’re built to do.

The tod­dler was still scream­ing when I felt the heavy metal square I was look­ing for: a tape mea­sure. I sat up and be­gan my as­sess­ments. Be­tween the seat in front of me and my knees: less than 5 inches. Across my lap, from one arm­rest to the other: 17.3 inches. My aisle-side com­pan­ion raised his eye­brows but said noth­ing. I tried to gauge how wide a berth my el­bows needed, and bumped the win­dow-side guy. He grunted and sighed. Some­where be­tween 19 and 20 inches.

The ironic thing about the compressed state of air travel to­day is that planes are get­ting larger. The jet I was on, an Air­bus A321, stretches nearly 23 feet longer than its pre­de­ces­sor, the A320. More space, more pas­sen­gers, more profit. These big­ger planes are in­creas­ingly the most com­mon vari­ants—both on Amer­i­can Air­lines and across all car­ri­ers. The cur­rent Boe­ing 737s, the world’s most flown craft, are all longer than the orig­i­nal by up to 45 feet. And yet, on the in­side, we’re get­ting squeezed.

That’s be­cause more space doesn’t equal more space in Air­line World. It equals more seats—and typ­i­cally less room per per­son. In 2017, for ex­am­ple, word leaked that Amer­i­can was plan­ning to add six econ­omy spots to its A320s, nine to its A321s, and 12 (that’s two rows) to its Boe­ing 737-800s. JetBlue is re­port­edly ram­ming 12 ex­tras into its A320s, and Delta’s will gain 10. And, come 2020, you’ll likely find more seats on ev­ery United plane.

In Air­line World, they call this den­si­fi­ca­tion, which is a silly word. Pas­sen­gers call it ar­rrgh!

Con­sumer Re­ports re­cently polled 55,000 of its mem­bers about air travel. There were

com­plaints about all as­pects, from tick­et­ing to agents check­ing carry-ons at the gate. But 30 per­cent of coach-class fliers rated their seats as out­right un­com­fort­able, and ev­ery air­line re­ceived ex­tremely low scores on legroom and cushi­ness in econ­omy. Clearly, things are dis­mal and seem to be get­ting even worse.

They’re so bad, in fact, that last year, non­profit con­sumer-ad­vo­cacy group Fly­ers filed a suit against the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, af­ter lob­by­ing the agency to stop the squeeze and stan­dard­ize seat sizes. Lawyers ar­gued that the cramped quar­ters are dan­ger­ous, and, as they con­tinue to shrink, are only get­ting more so. For Amer­i­cans—who weigh about 15 pounds more than they did 20 years ago—the chairs can be harder to es­cape in an emer­gency. And wedg­ing in and stay­ing sta­tion­ary for long flights can cause cir­cu­la­tion prob­lems. Last July, the U.S. Court of Ap­peals in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., ruled in fa­vor of Fly­er­, or­der­ing the FAA to re­view pas­sen­ger quar­ters. Judge Pa­tri­cia Ann Mil­lett dubbed it “The Case of the In­cred­i­ble Shrink­ing Air­line Seat.” The FAA has yet to pro­pose a path for­ward.

Even with­out a pub­lic court case, the fact that we’re cramped is a se­cret to no one, par­tic­u­larly statis­ti­cian and fit ex­pert Kath­leen Robi­nette. She’s been mea­sur­ing air­plane seats—among other things—for more than 40 years, which in­cludes a three-decade ten­ure at the Air Force’s re­search lab. “The Air Force in­vests a lot of money in it be­cause if their prod­ucts don’t fit, peo­ple die,” she says. She also over­saw the Civil­ian Amer­i­can and Euro­pean Sur­face An­thro­pom­e­try Re­source (CAE­SAR), an in­ter­na­tional sur­vey that mea­sured more than 4,000 peo­ple to model the range of hu­man shapes and sizes in 3D. Agen­cies like NASA and com­pa­nies like Amer­i­can can use the re­source as ref­er­ence for fit.

She’s the one who sug­gested I bring a tape mea­sure aboard my flight. I thought of her as I tried to cap­ture the sliver from my heels to the bar below my seat, the line of de­mar­ca­tion be­tween my space and an­other pas­sen­ger’s lug­gage. Too mi­nus­cule to count.


The first air­line pas­sen­ger seats, in the late 1920s, were tacked on. De­sign­ers made quick ad­di­tions, such as leather head­rests and cush­ions, to cheap and light wicker fur­ni­ture, which they bolted to the craft’s floors. Boe­ing even­tu­ally im­proved on wicker with bent wood, but it wasn’t un­til af­ter World War II, once com­mer­cial fly­ing be­came com­mon, that any­one paid much at­ten­tion to cabin de­sign. Man­u­fac­tur­ers—pri­mar­ily Al­coa, which built alu­minum seats—be­gan churn­ing out chairs and, by the mid-1950s, an ac­ci­den­tal stan­dard be­gan to emerge. Build seats to ac­com­mo­date the hips of the largest men, the think­ing went, and they’d fit al­most ev­ery­one. At the time, most men had hips 18 inches or smaller; that’s why most sky-pews are around 18 inches wide, though some shrink as nar­row as 16.

Two hefty is­sues here: First, men’s shoul­ders are, on av­er­age, more than 3 inches broader than their hips. Also, men aren’t the only ones who fly. The av­er­age woman’s hips are more than 3 inches wider than a man’s. The seats, from the be­gin­ning, fit no one.

But to re­ally un­der­stand our cur­rent sorry state in the sky, you have to grok how the busi­ness of air travel has changed over the past half-cen­tury. The 1978 Air­line Dereg­u­la­tion Act re­moved fed­eral con­trol over fares and routes and made it eas­ier for new car­ri­ers to launch. Whereas be­fore, the air­lines op­er­ated al­most like util­ity com­pa­nies—re­gion­al­ized, with a few play­ers sub­ject to mas­sive over­sight—the in­dus­try was sud­denly part of the free mar­ket. Com­pe­ti­tion meant a quick drop in fares, so more peo­ple could af­ford to fly.

Then, in the mid ’90s, Price­line and Ex­pe­dia en­tered the scene, re­veal­ing to the masses the fluc­tu­at­ing na­ture of air­fare, al­low­ing them to see how prices shift by the day and time. “This was re­ally the revo­lu­tion,

the turn­ing point,” ex­plains Seth Miller, an avi­a­tion-in­dus­try an­a­lyst. Sud­denly, the av­er­age con­sumer could find bar­gain flights. In 1965, dur­ing what many term the “golden era” of the jet age, only 1 in 5 Amer­i­cans had ever been on an air­plane. To­day, that por­tion is flipped: 1 in 5 have never flown, while about half of us will jet at least once a year.

As ever more of us scram­ble for cheap air­fare, car­ri­ers cram in rows by mess­ing with pitch, which is the dis­tance be­tween any point on your seat and the same point on the one in front of you. Be­fore dereg­u­la­tion, the av­er­age pitch was about 35 inches, roughly equiv­a­lent to to­day’s do­mes­tic busi­ness class or “econ­omy plus” up­grades. This past May, re­ports cir­cu­lated that Amer­i­can would shrink pitch to 30 inches in most rows; that’s about the norm, but many bud­get car­ri­ers such as Spirit ratchet it down as low as 28 inches. When pitch is less than 30 inches, any­one taller than 5-foot-8 (more than half of Amer­i­can men and about 5 per­cent of women) is in dan­ger of get­ting kneecapped by a re­clin­ing seat.

This is not a sim­ple mat­ter of tab­u­lat­ing inches. “Clothes that fit don’t ex­actly match your mea­sure­ments,” Robi­nette, the fit ex­pert, ex­plains. Good de­sign re­flects the re­al­ity of ex­is­tence, which is that we move. On a pair of Levi’s, the hips are wider than waist­lines, not only be­cause hips by and large are wider than waists, but be­cause they flex and turn and some­times jig­gle and dance. Sim­i­larly, mov­ing when seated al­lows us to shift when our joints get stiff or our butts go numb.

The lack of air be­tween chairs pins us in place, but that’s only part of the air­plane pinch. Aside from pitch, de­sign­ers trim the gal­leys— where we en­ter and exit the plane, where the drink carts stow, and where at­ten­dants nuke tiny sand­wiches and hang out. Once they’re out of an­nex­able space there, they can eat into the bath­rooms (the “lavs,” in Air­line World).

Af­ter apol­o­giz­ing pro­fusely to my girthy, aisle-seated com­pan­ion, I made my way to the lavs. Once in­side, I at­tempted the clas­sic “I’m in a small room” move, reach­ing out to see if I could touch both walls at once. No luck, but not be­cause the room was so wide: I couldn’t raise my arms be­yond my waist. I stretched my tape mea­sure across the widest point: 34 inches. My el­bows could tap both walls.

I ma­neu­vered my mea­surer over to the toi­let and found that the “room” was just 23 inches wide across the bowl. Yikes. Many build­ing codes re­quire res­i­den­tial heads to sit in the mid­dle of a 32-inch or wider span. Com­mer­cial codes de­mand 36 inches. But the FAA has no such re­quire­ments: Sin­gle-aisle planes like the A321 don’t have to have lavs at all, let alone ones to ac­com­mo­date the dis­abled. It’s also a bad sit­u­a­tion if you’re a body­builder or preg­nant. (When An­dre the Gi­ant flew, at­ten­dants handed him a bucket.) Still, a small room is bet­ter than none at all.


The fight for com­fort is a strug­gle among man­u­fac­tur­ers (“framers,” in aero lingo), air­lines, and pas­sen­gers. “It’s profit first, then com­fort. That’s the bat­tle,” says an­a­lyst Miller.

The framers push air­lines to think cre­atively about den­si­fi­ca­tion schemes, and dis­play their zeal at con­ven­tions. Parts man­u­fac­tur­ers like Rock­well-Collins and com­pa­nies like Boe­ing and Air­bus show con­cepts with stacked chairs, sad­dles, pitches as nar­row as 24 inches, and even bunks in the cargo hold. “Air­bus would love noth­ing more than to add 11 seats in a row. They mocked it up once, and a bunch of us sat in it. It wasn’t good,” Miller re­calls.

Vo­cal and of­ten union­ized flight at­ten­dants pre­vent the car­ri­ers from buying into any truly ag­gres­sive in­te­ri­ors. At­ten­dants over­see evac­u­a­tions, and some worry that shrunken seats make it dif­fi­cult for pas­sen­gers to exit. Pinched trav­el­ers can also be harder to man­age. “Flight at­ten­dants are left to deal with a myr­iad of chal­lenges,” an Amer­i­can at­ten­dants’ union rep wrote me in an email state­ment, “in­clud­ing in­creased in­ci­dents of air rage that can only get worse as more air­planes are fly­ing at full ca­pac­ity.”

Mar­ket forces may have trig­gered den­si­fi­ca­tion, but pas­sen­gers share the blame. We want cheap air­fare—as ev­ery an­a­lyst and de­signer and en­gi­neer and at­ten­dant I spoke with ex­plained. And we will en­dure the pinch for the sav­ings. “Do I wish we all had 36 inches of pitch? Of course, but I’m not will­ing to pay for it,” Miller says, adding, “Most fly­ers agree: ‘I’ll put my knees to my chin, suf­fer for three hours, and buy din­ner when I get there’ is the logic.”

The few in-flight com­forts that re­main seek to dis­tract us from our bleak sur­round­ings. Free snacks and TV are cal­cu­lated moves, and so is the cabin de­sign, ex­plains Roser Roca-Toha of Air­bus’ air­craft mar­ket­ing de­part­ment. Her team will present a car­rier with up to 150 dif­fer­ent seat­ing con­fig­u­ra­tions and a slew of aes­thetic tweaks, such as cabin col­ors and mood light­ing, to di­vert dis­com­fort. These user-ex­pe­ri­ence win­dow dress­ings—first pop­u­lar­ized by Vir­gin Amer­ica—can be rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive for the air­lines. Even the pricey things, such as

en­ter­tain­ment, are get­ting cheaper, as car­ri­ers re­place $10,000-a-pop seat­back screens with in-flight Wi-Fi and ac­cess to stream­ing cat­a­logs through fly­ers’ own tablets and phones. A more densely packed plane can off­set the price of these add-ons in a few months.

Di­ver­sion is one of the framers’ last cards to play. They’ve pushed the ge­om­e­try of seat­ing al­most as far as our girth will al­low it to go. There’s just one thing left to give: the re­cline. Those few inches, Roca-Toha ex­plains, might slightly im­prove one per­son’s sit­u­a­tion but will likely down­grade that of who­ever’s be­hind them. If one flyer re­clines, the rest of the plane also has to, if only to re­claim the space ceded to the in­sti­ga­tor. “A good com­pro­mise is a pre­re­cline—a nat­u­ral re­cline that is fixed in place. It’s kin­der, and more nat­u­ral,” Roca-Toha says. Fron­tier Air­lines and Spirit now have sta­tion­ary, pre-re­clined seats, and over­seas car­ri­ers British Air­ways, Nor­we­gian, and Ryanair have also opted to do away with lean­able chairs.

My fel­low pas­sen­gers and I nav­i­gated these tiny spa­ces while we hur­tled above the south­west­ern Sono­ran desert. In this mo­ment, in tran­sit to work or our loved ones, the cabin de­sign forced us in each other’s way. Get­ting into and out of my row, I’d apol­o­gized to my seat­mates. A few rows up, an­other man did the same; “I have ter­ri­ble news,” he said, an­nounc­ing him­self to his neigh­bors.

We blame each other, and our­selves, for our dis­com­fort. But we are wrong. “It’s not you,” Robi­nette says. “Most peo­ple are near av­er­age size. That’s lit­er­ally why it’s an av­er­age. But peo­ple as­sume it’s them, not the prod­uct.” It’s the prod­uct. It can be fixed.

Right now, nearly ev­ery­one is, to vary­ing de­grees, un­com­fort­able on an air­plane. And yet some­times, we band to­gether and cry out: Enough! The de­sign­ers do lis­ten. Roca-Toha ex­plains that pas­sen­ger feed­back—from sur­vey cards and on­line forms—is the most pow­er­ful tool framers have in per­fect­ing craft.

I was skep­ti­cal, but she’s right. Re­mem­ber Amer­i­can’s plan to add more seats across its fleet? The scheme would have chopped pitch to 29 inches on the car­rier’s new 737s, but at­ten­dants and pas­sen­gers protested, tak­ing to Twit­ter and Face­book to com­plain. The com­pany in­stead cut its ex­tra-legroom op­tion on one row, and spread the space across the econ­omy cabin, hold­ing pitch at 30 inches. An ex­tra inch of wig­gle room is a small vic­tory for us, but con­sider the air­line’s sacri­fice: the padded prof­its from thou­sands of up­graded trips. If we can do that, maybe we can do one bet­ter. Wider seats? Roomier rows? Or we can start small: No sad­dle seats, ever.

Framers have pushed the ge­om­e­try of seat­ing al­most as far as our girth will al­low it to go.

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