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The Shrinking Airline Seat

In the megabytes of mail I have received about the passenger rights, air rage, and flight delay issues, one recurring chord is struck, captured in this admirably brief email from G Dunn:

"As a business traveler, I think that the size of the seats is one of the big factors in the mood of the passenger on a airplane. I am under 6 feet tall and on most aircraft my knees almost touch the seat in front of me. I can imagine how anyone else taller than I feels."

I think as a business traveler myself that the size of the seats is one of the big factors in the mood of the passenger on a airplane.

Recently, the airlines appear to have heard Mr. Dunn's cry for some personal space. United will launch a program to increase seat pitch, defined as the distance from one row of seats to the next, in the first several rows of coach. American hopes to one-up United by increasing seat pitch in all economy seats throughout its entire fleet.

Meanwhile, several airlines are weighing their options, or merely insisting they already offer more leg room.

The Disappearing Seat: A Myth?
Although the "standard" seat pitch has decreased almost industry-wide from 33-34 inches to more like 31 inches, airlines maintain that leg room has not actually diminished. Instead, the adoption of a higher density seat back that, at 0.5 to 1" thick, was three to four inches thinner than the older padded seat backs afforded the airlines some extra room. They filled the space with more seats (or in some cases moved the space up a class or two), but without taking away any actual leg room.

Baloney? Does It Matter?
I don't know of a single traveler who buys the claim that leg room hasn't decreased, but there are more factors to think about. An increased number of seats on the plane means more income per flight, and helps keep airfares down. For short haul flights, research has shown that low fares count more than seat pitch. As flights get longer, priorities things start to shift.

There's extensive research to back up Mr. Dunn's statement, if he's technically only half right. On short-haul flights up to six hours, comfort is a low priority for most travelers. On long haul flights over six hours, however, comfort is the number one concern after flight availability.

According to Boeing spokesman Sean Griffin, when choosing their flight, short haul fliers are concerned about the following, in this order of priority:
1) flight availability at the time they want to fly
2) a good fare
3) marketing perks such as frequent flyer programs
4) customer service issues
5) comfort

But for flights over six hours, passenger priorities shifted dramatically. After flight availability, which retained the top spot, comfort placed second.

Years of research by Boeing's Klaus Brauer, the Darwin of airplane seating configuration, found that one factor above all most powerfully affects perceived passenger comfort: whether or not the seat next to you is empty.

The Middle Seat Factor
Boeing has patented what they call the Personal Space Model, a formula that accounts for seat pitch, width, and similar quantifiable measurements, along with more subjective elements of passenger perception of space.

Some of the findings:
- Leg room and seat width account for 60% of the average traveler's sense of comfort
- Putting the widest point in the cabin at eye level (approx. 48 inches) "tricks" passengers to experience a sensation of greater roominess.
- The overarching factor determining passenger perception of comfort: whether or not the middle seat is occupied.

The Standard Seat: 17.2 Inches Wide; 31-32 Inch Seat Pitch
During the development of the 777 family of planes, Boeing took their findings and decided to add 5 inches to the width of the plane. It permitted them to put in wider, 18.5" seats without diminishing the overall capacity.

The standard airline seat is 17.2" wide, while seat pitch ranges from 28" on some short-haul, down-and-dirty charters, to 33-34" on some planes.

Who Has the Best Seats?
It would be great if we could simply tell you which airline offers the most leg room. Almost to the plane, Boeing recommends a 32" seat pitch in coach. What the airlines actually order is another thing altogether. Unfortunately, seat pitch varies not merely by airline, but from plane to plane within each airline's fleet.

Midwest Express stands alone, offering 33" of pitch and 21" wide seats as standard equipment. United, which led the way in the recent seat size increase, has some 727's with 34" seat pitch, and 777's with 33" seat pitch.

Overhead Space
Additionally, the third generation of 737s added two inches of interior width, as well as more height overhead.

"A lot of the perception of comfort is visual" Griffin noted. Boeing changed the contours of the overhead bins to offer more headroom, and changed the lighting to give a perception of spaciousness. Focus groups were convinced the cabin was larger, Griffin noted.

Seating Arrangements and Passenger Perception
The airlines can give us more leg room, wider seats, more headroom, better sightlines, but little else matters when that middle seat is empty.

The best way to make sure that middle seat is empty is to fly offpeak, and avoid all rush hours. Midday flights, Saturday afternoon flights, and off-season flights on popular routes are good bets. For everyone else, Boeing has done research into maximizing the empty middle seat bonus.

Boeing strongly recommends a 3-3-3 seating configuration on the 777; that means three seats along the window, then a row; three seats in the middle, then another row; and three seats along the window. Another common configuration is 2-5-2.

Brauer discovered that, with the 2-5-2 configuration, a 44% load factor requires that a passenger sit next to a stranger. That is, when the plane is 44% full, chances are good that you'll be rubbing elbows with a pyramid marketing professional from Des Moines.

In the 3-3-3 configuration, a load factor of 67% must be achieved before you'll sit next to that pyramid scheme hawker.

United flew at 76% capacity this past July, while the industry average hovers around 72%. No wonder we're feeling cramped.

Cramming More Seats on the Plane
Even if seat pitch and width remain essentially constant, there's no question that cramming more seats in the airplane creates some additional problems. I no longer request bulkhead seats due to the proliferation of bulkhead locations that are severely impinged upon by bulky exit doors. And the last row of the airplane can be hell on Earth, as the airlines have placed them right against the back wall of the cabin, and they don't recline at all.

The Numbers Game
Airlines like to think their seats hold up in comparison to office and theater seats. I wasn't so sure, so I took out a tape measure.

It took some measurements of my own:
- General: 6'1", approx. 180 lbs.
- Width, A: Distance across hips: approx. 15"
- Leg pitch: Distance from small of back to end of knee while sitting: 25"
- Height: Eye level sitting in my office chair: 48"
- Width, B: Distance from elbow to elbow while standing: 23 inches +

It's that last one that looms largest when it comes to confronting the Middle Seat Factor. It's no wonder that I don't want anyone next to me - there's five or six inches of me that I need to gather in and put somewhere else when I'm sitting in a middle seat next to two strangers so not to elbow them the entire flight.

Office Chairs:
For these numbers I measured my own office chair, as well as those of several colleagues. All were very similar.
- Width of office chair seat cushion: 20"
- Width of office chair seat back: 17.75"
- Distance from seat back to end of knee when sitting comfortably, maybe slightly slumped: 26.5"
- Distance from seat back to end of knee when sitting in a position in which I might be able to doze: 31"

My local movie theaters:
Theater 1 was stadium-style, with seats that curved with the shape of the room, making the seats wider in the back than in the front. Theater 2 was aligned in straight rows.
Theater 1:
- Seat back width: 20"
- Seat front: 18"
- Elbow-elbow: 23"
- Seat Pitch: 37.5"

Theater 2:
Seat width: 18-20 inches (alternating by row)
Elbow-elbow: 21"
Seat pitch: 36"

Theater 2 will install stadiums-style seats in January, increasing seat sizes by two inches across the board, and increasing seat pitch as well. The theater industry is responding in part to the fact that Americans are getting wider, while many seats are getting smaller. If they try to cram us in smaller seats, we won't go to the movies.

In the office and theater chairs, I can cross my legs, sit sideways, rest my head on my elbow, and (don't tell the boss) take a quick snooze. I don't even try crossing my legs on a plane; I might break something.

All told, my research indicates that a minimum 34" seat pitch would do the trick for most folks. On most airplanes, this would require the removal of only one or two rows. Doesn't seem like too much to ask.

While I was measuring one of the theaters, the concession stand worker who let me in told me a story of a recent coast-to-coast trip when she could barely walk after sitting in her tiny seat the entire flight. And I thought, coast-to-coast; that's six hours.

Other Factors
Harder Seats?
Griffin noted that, of the major airline seat suppliers, none manufacture airplane seats as their exclusive, or even primary, business. Thus, there is an absence of extensive research into seat ergonomics of the type that Griffin could cite for the more broad category of cabin ergonomics.

There has been extensive research into ideal parameters for office seats, theater seats, and other types of seats; it's not clear that this data has been applied to airline seats. Certainly, my ergonomically sound office chair doesn't look like anything I've seen on an airplane, and it's softer than many.

Are seats harder? I don't have the data to support it, but the language gives us an answer: "the new high density foam seats." "High density" sounds like another word for "hard" to me.

Still, airlines, and not seat makers, still determine where to bolt the seats down.

The Effect of Delays on Passenger Comfort
I don't think Griffin was trying to pass the buck on this one, but his comments on flight delays are interesting. He cited passenger satisfaction surveys on high-speed TGV trains in Europe, which have "slightly narrower seats, less leg room, and worse service." However, the common perception of these trains is of luxury and comfort. He attributes it to the train system's overall higher reliability with regard to schedules.

"When you get on one of those trains, and it is scheduled to leave at 5:12, you can look at your watch, and at 5:12 the train starts to move," Griffin said. "There's a halo effect that occurs, and passengers tend to be more content."

"With an airline delay, there's often the chance that you will miss meetings, connections, family meeting you at the airport. As a result, you get the opposite of the halo effect, an increased level of anxiety among passengers."

Wall St. Wants More Seat Pitch (And Fewer Flights)
Is the move to increase passenger comfort by taking some seats out of the planes an altruistic gesture? Of course not. The airlines are hoping travelers, especially frequent travelers, will pay more for the seats. It also gives them a less onerous method of upgrading low-level frequent fliers.

And more to the point, Wall St. has been grumbling about the expanding industry approaching overcapacity, with just too much supply to meet the demand. Analysts were so concerned that they recommended that United take some planes out of service. United stopped short of that recommendation, stating that they were responding to customer preference, not stock price. It remains to be seen if the removal of a few seats can goose stock prices.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

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