Last week just about all the news networks and lots of newspapers featured those new "SkyRider" airline seats, and last year Ryanair's CEO got a lot publicity by floating the possibility of "standing room" flying. A reader wants to know if these "advances" are really likely to happen:
"Am I really going to have to stand up or sort of half-stand, half-lean on a future flight?"
The short answer is, "Not right away, maybe never, but maybe sometime, too." Here's my take.
The current wave of interest started when Italian seat manufacturer Aviointeriors displayed its new SkyRider seat design at an industry show in California. The design appears to be a compromise between standing and true sitting—you sort of lean against a small seat with your knees somewhat bent. Some new transit cars apparently use a similar design, which Aviointeriors has morphed into an airline seat. Apparently, the maker showed some actual seats, not just designs.
The idea, of course, is airlines could space rows of SkyRiders just 23 inches apart, and thus stuff in many more seats than even the tightest current economy seat designs allow. Currently, 31 inches is the most common spacing of conventional economy seats in the U.S. and on intercontinental flights; some low-fare lines go down to 28 inches. The math certainly works: A front-to-rear spacing ("pitch," in airline-ese) of 23 inches would allow an airline to install up to a third more seats in the same amount of cabin space, compared with today's 31-inch pitch. Those extra seats, in turn, would allow airlines to offer still lower fares, increase profits, or both. Thus, the basic idea is attractive enough to generate some traction. But it would have to overcome some big obstacles.
The other alternative—strict stand-up with poles and/or straphanging is probably a non-starter. Even Ryanair's O'Leary admits that much of what he says is hot air designed to generate publicity, and many industry mavens believe stand-up seating is one example.
Still, nobody ever overestimated O'Leary's willingness to abuse passengers in the name of greater economy. And if any line ever does try to install standing room, you can bet on Ryanair.
Safety may very well trump very-high-density airline seating. Governmental safety regulations limit the number of seats in an airplane, based on ability to evacuate the plane quickly in an emergency—a calculation that involves seat spacing and the available number of emergency exits and doors, as well as actual tests with mock-up cabins. As far as I can tell, those regulations would not allow a third more seats in any of the popular narrow-body jets currently in widespread use. Beyond sheer numbers, the seats do not appear to provide adequate passenger restraint to satisfy crashworthiness requirements.
This is not to say that the airlines and manufacturers couldn't ultimately get lean-on seats through the safety requirements. But that process would probably require years of testing—and maybe some changes in regulatory requirements. I also suspect Congress might get in on the act.
The SkyRider manufacturer notes that the lean-on seats would be limited to relatively short flights. As far as I can tell, however, neither Aviointeriors nor any airline has actually tested—even on the ground—how long typical passengers could actually tolerate that seating before reaching the "never again" level of fatigue and pain. My gut reaction is that maximum tolerance for even the most dedicated bargain-hunters would be somewhere between one and two hours. Even then, for many of us, the design appears to represent a chiropractor's dream: a backache looking for a place to happen.
Certainly lots of domestic flights fall into that possibly feasible one-to-two-hour time category. But I don't know of any US or Canadian airline with no flights over two hours, and most airlines prefer not to operate sub-fleets limited to a small number of routes. Still, if the numbers look good enough, some lines might be willing to accept such a limitation.
All the focus on SkyRider has obscured another proposed system aimed at increasing the number of seats in an airplane. British seat maker Thompson Aero Seating is pushing "Cozy Suite," a design featuring seat groups with each adjacent seat offset, front-to-rear, by a few inches. The idea is that at critical shoulder and seat levels, adjacent travelers would be ahead/behind each other rather than abutting. Thompson says the new seats would allow either more room at existing spacing of rows or more seats per row at current spacing.
According to reports last year, several airlines—including Delta—were planning to install Cozy Suite seats. However, I haven't seen anything lately.
The problem, if any, is in the ability of internal or window seat travelers to get in or out of their seats, either in an emergency or just to go to the lavatory. As I envision the geometry, entry and egress over/around seated passengers could be extremely difficult, regardless of the direction of the offset. In any event, Cozy Suite seems to be very quiet these days. I'll report on any changes.
Evolution, Not Revolution
The more likely outcome of all this is an evolution in more conventional economy seating. Already quite a few airlines, including American, have installed (or are installing) seats with very thin fixed backs that don't recline. Instead, if you want to "recline," you slide your seat cushion forward. Of course, this design doesn't actually increase your legroom, but at least room you use up when you recline is your own and not that of the person behind you. Airlines claim that the new seats provide as much effective front-to-rear room at 29 or 30 inch pitch than more conventional seats at 30 to 31 inches. Obviously, this means stuffing at least a few more seats into the cabin.
My take, overall, is that the most likely intrusion on your already-insufficient seat space in economy will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But you should never underestimate the airlines' willingness to make their cheap seats increasingly uncomfortable if they can stuff more of them into a cabin.
What do you think about stand up seating? Share your thoughts on this idea by submitting a comment below!