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The Airplane Seat: Narrow, Cramped — and About to Get Worse

On a recent redeye flight, I boarded the plane, counted my way back to row 30 and settled into the window seat, a few rows behind the engines. After a hard few days of work, I was pretty beat, so I rolled the blanket into a pillow, crammed it against the airplane wall and planned on conking out for the six-hour flight.

At least until I settled back into my seat — a hard, ascetic slimline seat that was far better suited to teaching posture at strict 1950s grade schools than for catching a few desperate winks ahead of an intense Monday workday.

Following some recent announcements indicating that seats are likely to get smaller, thinner and more tightly spaced, it seems like a good time to take stock of the ever-shrinking airline seat, about which I first wrote back in 1999.

Airline Seats Are Still Shrinking

There are a number of factors at play, the biggest difference being newer seats that allow airlines to cram more rows onto each plane. This means we lose nearly imperceptible centimeters and inches with every seat added.

For example, the seats often have narrower armrests than previous ones, so you even if you technically have the same seat cushion size, you don’t have the same amount of horizontal space to yourself.

Seat pitch (the distance from the back of one seat to the back of the one in front) is also declining. While a pitch of 31 – 33 inches was once fairly common, most airlines have less than that today, as researched by USA Today.

Budget airlines are typically the worst; Spirit has planes with seat pitches of just 28 inches.

Finally, with airline loads also going up, the chances of having no one in the seat next to you are far lower than they were a decade ago. When I wrote the 1999 article, average load factors were at 71 percent; today they are at 84 percent, according to USA Today, having climbed at a rate of around 1 percent each year.

Newer Seats, Less Comfort

The way the seats are built seems to me ergonomically problematic, as the new harder seats are built for sitting upright — which is great for typing class, but not so much for trying to sleep on a long-haul flight or a redeye.

As an example, I’m about 6’1″, and my knees are about 27 inches from the back of my seat — if I pull my hips all the way back. If I relax at all, that moves my knees out a few more inches — which puts them right against the seat in front of me.

My shoulder width is about 18 inches, but if I drop my arms and tuck them against my sides, I am more like 22 – 24 inches wide. According to the USA Today article, most airline seats are only 17 – 18.5 inches wide.

Technically, my skeleton does fit into a typical airline seat — as long as I sit up and keep my hands and arms folded forward into my lap.

But it turns out I am actually small; according to USA Today, the average American hip width was 20.6 inches back in 2002, and it’s probably safe to assume that this figure hasn’t gone down since then.

Add the fact that we often have to compete with entertainment system boxes for foot space, and you have a situation where even David Blaine would not be comfortable. It feels like every window seat person is slammed against the aircraft wall; meanwhile, how many aisle seat travelers haven’t been bumped by the flight attendant cart or a fellow passenger heading to the lavatory?

Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse.

New and Upcoming Seats

Airbus is currently working on a new seat that could make the current slimline seats feel like thrones. An article from Quartz shows both Airbus’s idealized photos and pictures taken by journalists that tell a very different story.

The seats are apparently still 18 inches wide, but the armrests are much more narrow — so a 6’1″ male will almost have to hug himself not to spill into his neighbor’s space.

The window seats in particular look like rough going; this photo by Jason Rabinowitz, taken at Airbus’s press conference, shows how much foot room a person flying in a window seat will give up with these new configurations.

Airbus is promoting three seat sizes, which break down as follows:

Premium Economy: 20-inch seat cushion
Comfort Economy: 18-inch seat cushion
Budget Economy: 16.7″ (!!!!) seat cushion

The average American with 20-inch hips simply is not going to fit into these planes.

And it gets even worse — the point of the the narrower width is to permit the airlines to cram in more seats per row, which seems likely to result in 3-5-3 and even 3-6-3 row configurations. That is up to six “middle seats” per row — pure agony.

It’s coming to smaller planes as well: United is looking at going from nine to 10 seats per row on its Boeing 777 planes, according to Aviation Week.

Safety Concerns

The challenges to passenger comfort are clear, but what about passenger safety?

FAA regulations dictate that passengers must be able to exit a plane within 90 seconds even with some exits blocked, but the agency’s own tests are all on planes with 31-inch pitch — which is more space than what’s available on many planes flying today.

Many readers remember a time when the person in the window seat could get up and walk around without disturbing his or her neighbors; now you can barely pass a newspaper in front of their knees.

Hopefully you never have occasion to find out, but what if you have to escape your middle or window seat during an emergency, particularly if your seatmate is incapacitated in any way? The rows are tight, the aisles are cramped and there is very little room for movement of any kind at present — what happens in a situation in which moving out is a matter of survival? Air travel is still terrifically safe, but the thought is a bit chilling.

Add to this the massive increase in large bags crammed under seats, and you have a situation that even the Department of Transportation is worried about, and not because fliers are uncomfortable.

What to Do About It

To help you get the least bad seat possible, these tips may help:

– Use seating chart sites like SeatGuru.com to make sure you don’t end up in seats with entertainment systems or aircraft doors that encroach on foot space, have less storage or the like.

– Check in online, at which time there may be relatively inexpensive upgrades available. Yes, the airlines want you to pay for every extra bit of space you get, and this just encourages them — but if you can afford it and the flight is long enough to merit the extra cost, it can be worth it. It can also help get you through security more quickly, a nice bonus.

– Check out these charts of the best and worst aircraft configurations.

– If you are flying on an airline like Southwest, which allows passengers to pick their own seats based on boarding order, paying extra to be part of an earlier group can make a big difference.

A Tipping Point?

Air travel is expected to boom this summer, but in my own informal surveys of friends and family, I’ve found that many travelers are opting to drive fairly significant distances to avoid the growing expense and inconvenience of air travel. Settling into an airplane seat was once something to savor; now it is something to survive, at best.

Have we reached a tipping point? Will the shrinking seats be enough to push many fliers away for good? We’d like to hear what you think; let us know in the comments!

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns SeatGuru.com.

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