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The Coach-Class Legroom Problem, Solved?

Pity the coach-class flyer (me, you, and the rest of the 99 percent). Even as travelers’ height and girth have increased, coach-seat legroom has been steadily reduced.

Combine that seating squeeze with full flights—averaging 80-plus percent full, these days—and you have a recipe for claustrophobia and air rage.

Short of upselling travelers to premium economy—the industry’s cynical response to the problem it created—airlines are in denial. Indeed, they’re intent on cramming ever-more seats into the same space, refitting planes with so-called slimline seats and reducing legroom even more. Passenger comfort be damned!

What creativity has been brought to bear on the problem has mostly focused on furthering the airlines’ agenda: cramming more flyers into the same space. Hence we’ve seen proposed designs for stand-up seating and for fold-down seats with a token backrest.

A refreshingly different approach is reflected in a patent application from B/E Aerospace of Wellington, Florida. In its request to patent a “method and apparatus for adjusting the spacing of vehicle seats based on the seize of the occupant,” the company proposes the following:

A passenger seat assembly for permitting adjustment of the spacing of a passenger seat row relative to a fore or aft passenger seat row that includes first and second seat tracks for being positioned on the deck of an aircraft and extended along a longitudinal axis of an aircraft passenger area of the aircraft.

In short, seats are on tracks that allow them to be moved fore and aft, increasing or decreasing legroom row by row. Of course, it’s a zero-sum game. Increasing legroom for one row means decreasing legroom for the row behind it.

Which naturally raises the thorny question: Who decides which rows get extra space, and which get less. The proposal envisions a scenario in which flight attendants use a tablet-like device to adjust the distance between rows, based on the size of the occupants. The row with the six-footer might be moved back, to afford more legroom, while the row with the undersized teen might be moved forward.

Nice, at first glance. But when subjected to scrutiny, the concept is riddled with potential issues. First among them, perhaps, is the fact that rows are seldom occupied by only tall or only short passengers. Most rows are likely to include a mix of heights.

Then, imagine the pressure on flight attendants, as demand for more legroom would surely outstrip their ability to provide it. You can already hear the pleading, the offers of money, the threats of violence.

And if our hypothetical six-footer knows he’ll be accommodated with more legroom, he has little incentive to upgrade to premium economy. Which is a decided negative for any airline seriously contemplating adopting (and paying for) a new seating solution.

So, for a host of financial, operational, and marketing reasons, adjustable-row seating is probably a non-starter. Still, while flawed, perhaps fatally, it’s heartening to see efforts being made to alleviate the discomfort of coach travel.

Now, back to the drawing board.

Reader Reality Check

Adjustable-row seating. What say you: yay or nay?

This article originally appeared on

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