It's the seat, stupid.
That's a travel truism for the great majority of flyers traveling in coach.
And it goes hand in hand with another truth of coach travel: It's never been more uncomfortable than it is today.
In the decades since the 17-inch width was adopted as the de facto industry standard for coach seats, the average adult's height, weight, and girth have all increased. And the airlines' average load factors have increased as well, from flying 60 percent full in the 1980s to today, when planes are routinely 80 percent full, or more.
More bodies, and bigger bodies, crammed into the same space. It's no wonder that the seat-of-the-pants experience of air travel is at all-time lows.
Airbus this week came out with a strongly worded statement chiding the airlines for their continued use of "crusher seats," and urging the adoption of a new standard width for coach seats of 18 inches. According to Kevin Keniston, Airbus's Head of Passenger Comfort:
If the aviation industry doesn't make a stand right now, we risk jeopardizing passenger comfort into 2045 and beyond. Which means that another generation is confined to seats that are based on 1950s standards. We're encouraging all airlines to look at our research and consider increasing the size of their seats. Because, as the research has shown, one inch makes all the difference.
Airbus's more-width campaign is based on research into the relationship between seat width and sleep.
The Airbus-sponsored study comparing 17- and 18-inch seats clearly showed that the wider seats were the minimum width required to afford passengers any chance of meaningful sleep during long-haul flights. According to the data, the 18-inch seats improved passengers' sleep quality by 53 percent.
The Airbus news release also points out that the number of flights of 6,000 or more miles has increased by 70 percent in just the past five years.
Although the focus is sleep, the broader implications are for comfort generally. Bigger bodies need bigger seats. Period.
Of course, seat width is only half the story. The other key variable affecting coach comfort is the distance between the seats: legroom. As with seat width, the current industry standard of 31-32 inches of legroom needs to be critically evaluated and updated.
Since the airlines seem disinclined to take the initiative themselves, perhaps Airbus would be good enough to look into the matter on behalf of cramped coach passengers. Because, unlike the airlines, Airbus sees fit to employ a Head of Passenger Comfort.
Reader Reality Check
Have we reached the tipping point in coach-class discomfort?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.
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