Air­lines eye cru­eler ways of mak­ing pas­sen­gers mis­er­able

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - BY DAVID LAZARUS

Re­cent news that Delta Air Lines is test­ing seats that re­cline even less should be suf­fi­cient to con­firm air­line pas­sen­gers’ fears that things will only get worse be­fore they get, al­most cer­tainly, worse.

But give Delta this much credit: At least they’re still pro­vid­ing seats.

A glimpse of how bad things re­ally could get was pro­vided the other day at the Air­craft In­te­ri­ors Expo 2019 trade show in Ham­burg, Ger­many. The event fea­tured plenty of in­no­va­tions in­tended to make air travel more com­fort­able for those who can af­ford top-dol­lar trim­mings, in­clud­ing first­class and busi­ness-class seats with lots of ameni­ties.

Imag­ine a bi­cy­cle seat with a lightly padded, up­right piece of plas­tic to lean against. That’s pretty much the Skyrider, which Avioin­t­e­ri­ors is hop­ing will be the hot ticket for car­ri­ers look­ing to cram even more seats into econ­o­my­class cabins, par­tic­u­larly for shorter flights.

“Skyrider is con­cept foun­da­tion of new way to travel in the short­haul routes,” the company de­clares in pass­able English on its web­site. “In­no­va­tion is driv­ing Avioin­t­e­ri­ors in de­vel­op­ing a new con­cept of a fam­ily of econ­omy seats.”

I reached out to Avioin­t­e­ri­ors by email to see what kind of in­ter­est air­lines have shown to the Skyrider and whether any or­ders have been re­ceived. I didn’t get a re­sponse.

But con­sid­er­ing that Avioin­t­e­ri­ors has been steadily tweak­ing the de­sign to meet car­rier and reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ments, I’m fig­ur­ing they’re se­ri­ous about get­ting this prod­uct into the avi­a­tion mar­ket­place. Which makes me com­fort­able — and that’s not a word that oth­er­wise ap­plies to this col­umn — in be­liev­ing it’s just a mat­ter of time be­fore we start see­ing, if not the Skyrider, then some other vari­a­tion on a bare-bones, tor­turecham­ber ap­pa­ra­tus that will be passed off as a boon to bud­get-minded pas­sen­gers.

“I have no doubt at all,” agreed Kate Hanni, founder of Fly­er­, an ad­vo­cacy group. “If the air­lines can get away with shov­ing more seats onto a flight, they’ll do it.”

As for Skyrider seats, she said, “there has to be in­ter­est” among air­lines. “There’s no way they’re not in­ter­ested in some­thing like this.” In Delta’s case, the air­line is test­ing re­duced-re­cline seats on its en­tire A320 fleet.

The idea, Delta in­sists, isn’t to squeeze more seats into the econ­omy cabin. “It’s all about pro­tect­ing cus­tomers’ per­sonal space and min­i­miz­ing dis­rup­tions to mul­ti­task­ing in-flight.” Sa­van­nah Huddleston, a company spokes­woman, said in a state­ment. What she means by that pos­i­tivesound­ing sen­ti­ment is that by re­strict­ing how far seats can lean back, you’re pro­tect­ing what lit­tle space each person has, so pas­sen­gers can type on a lap­top, or read a book, and not have the seat in front of them touch­ing their chin.

Huddleston said lim­it­ing how far seats can go back is part of Delta’s “con­tin­ued ef­forts to make the in-flight ex­pe­ri­ence more en­joy­able.” This is what it’s come to: Mak­ing ev­ery­one largely im­mo­bile so as not to in­fringe on what lit­tle room each pas­sen­ger is given. That’s the new def­i­ni­tion of “more en­joy­able” air travel.

When dis­cussing air­line seats, it’s all about “pitch.” That’s the dis­tance from a point on one seat to the same point on the seat be­fore it. This is what de­fines not just the space in front of your torso but also how much (or lit­tle) legroom you’re al­lot­ted. Many car­ri­ers strive for an econ­omy-class seat pitch of 29 to 32 inches.

The pitch of the Skyrider is — wait for it — 23 inches. Mar­cia Alexan­der-adams, a spokes­woman for the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, told me she couldn’t com­ment on spe­cific seat de­signs. “But in gen­eral,” she said, “any seat de­sign must meet the ap­pli­ca­ble FAA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion reg­u­la­tions.”

Those reg­u­la­tions in­clude a num­ber of safety-re­lated stan­dards, such as seats be­ing de­signed “so that a person mak­ing proper use of these fa­cil­i­ties will not suf­fer se­ri­ous in­jury in an emer­gency land­ing,” and so there will be no “in­ju­ri­ous ob­ject within strik­ing ra­dius of the head.”

What the reg­u­la­tions don’t in­clude is any min­i­mums for seat size or pitch — no re­quire­ment that a seat be wide enough to ac­com­mo­date an or­di­nary hu­man, no re­quire­ment for enough legroom to pre­vent acts of con­tor­tion. In other words, air­line seats can be as ex­is­ten­tially chal­leng­ing as a car­rier wants, de­pend­ing on its lev­els of greed and sadism.

As best as I can tell, they don’t even have to be seats, which is good news for Avioin­t­e­ri­ors and its Skyrider bi­cy­cle sad­dles.

The regs re­fer to “berths,” which in­tro­duces an el­e­ment of am­bi­gu­ity to the def­i­ni­tion of what you’ll be strapped to. At the Ham­burg expo, Avioin­t­e­ri­ors also was pro­mot­ing what it calls its ESP seats, as in “econ­omy slim plat­form.” These are more like tra­di­tional seats in that they have, you know, ac­tual seats. But oth­er­wise they’re about as min­i­mal­ist an ex­pe­ri­ence as you can imag­ine.

Avioin­t­e­ri­ors says on­line that the ESP seats meet the “best space ex­ploita­tion in­ter­na­tional stan­dards,” which is a fancy way of say­ing, “Here’s how you can re­ally pack ’em in.” Yet, in­cred­i­bly, these aren’t the worst seat­ing ar­range­ments un­der con­sid­er­a­tion.

Conde Nast Trav­eler re­cently rounded up patents filed for truly grisly air­line ex­pe­ri­ences. These in­clude:

A proposal from Air­bus, the Euro­pean avi­a­tion pow­er­house, for a bike sad­dle-style con­trap­tion that looks more like play­ground equip­ment than an air­line seat. The patent ac­knowl­edges that even though this setup ac­com­mo­dates more peo­ple, “this in­crease in the num­ber of seats is achieved to the detri­ment of the comfort of the pas­sen­gers.” An­other idea from Air­bus that stacks pas­sen­gers bunk-bed-style — bot­tom seats and top seats. This has the virtue of al­low­ing you to get twice as many peo­ple into roughly the same amount of space.

And my par­tic­u­lar fa­vorite from Zo­diac Seats France, boast­ing a hexag­o­nal de­sign that al­ter­nates for­ward-fac­ing seats with rear-fac­ing seats, thus cre­at­ing, per­haps de­lib­er­ately, the pre­cise sen­sa­tion of a can of sar­dines.

Delta, by com­par­i­son, de­serves a prize for hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism.

As for the FAA — se­ri­ously, guys? Make a seat-size rule al­ready and put an end to this mad­ness.

Oth­er­wise, Skyrid­ers for you all.

David Lazarus writes the Consumer Con­fi­den­tial col­umn for The Los An­ge­les Times.


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