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Why Bigger Planes Mean Cramped Quarters


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Why Bigger Planes Mean Cramped Quarters
The incredible shrinking airplane.

Popular Science | Ryan Bradley

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The flight was typical: It was full, getting to my seat took forever, and, once I did, the overhead-bin space had run out. So I shoved my backpack under the seat in front of me, where my feet should have gone. I was in the middle—row 31, seat E, American Airlines flight 2070, Phoenix to San Francisco. My neighbors had claimed the armrests, so I had to wedge myself in place, elbows pinched against my ribs or folded toward my lap. I’d be uncomfortable for the duration of the one-hour-and-50-minute flight. As I said: typical. While I origamied my fairly average 5-foot-11, 172-pound frame into position, I realized I needed something from my bag. I leaned forward and hit my head on the seat in front of me. OK, going straight in wasn’t an option; I’d have to veer out of my allotted space. To my left sat a girthy man, his aisle-side arm resting upon his prodigious belly, the other spilling over the armrest and nearly into my lap. To my right, by the window, was a short but still quite stocky fellow; he wore large headphones, the bill of his ball cap tilted low. I began moving, very slightly, this way and that, in a manner not unlike someone parallel parking a semi. I tilted my torso down into the space near the shorter man’s legs and turned to face the aisle-side girthy man, my nose suddenly an inch from his arm. He recoiled. I apologized, and gestured toward my backpack. As I carefully dug around by my feet, a toddler wailed, and I thought, That is the sound we are all making on the inside. Our bodies want to move, and airplanes try to keep us still. We spill into each other’s spaces, banging elbows and heads as we do what we’re built to do.

The toddler was still screaming when I felt the heavy metal square I was looking for: a tape measure. I sat up and began my assessments. Between the seat in front of me and my knees: less than 5 inches. Across my lap, from one armrest to the other: 17.3 inches. My aisle-side companion raised his eyebrows but said nothing. I tried to gauge how wide a berth my elbows needed, and bumped the window-side guy. He grunted and sighed. Somewhere between 19 and 20 inches.

The ironic thing about the compressed state of air travel today is that planes are getting larger. The jet I was on, an Airbus A321, stretches nearly 23 feet longer than its predecessor, the A320. More space, more passengers, more profit. These bigger planes are increasingly the most common ­variants—both on American Airlines and across all carriers. The current Boeing 737s, the world's most flown craft, are all longer than the original by up to 45 feet. And yet, on the inside, we're getting squeezed.

That’s because more space doesn’t equal more space in Airline World. It equals more seats—and typically less room per person. In 2017, for example, word leaked that American was planning to add six economy spots to its A320s, nine to its A321s, and 12 (that’s two rows) to its Boeing 737-800s. JetBlue is reportedly ramming 12 extras into its A320s, and Delta’s will gain 10. And, come 2020, you’ll likely find more seats on every United plane.

In Airline World, they call this densification, which is a silly word. Passengers call it arrrgh!

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A Wicked Web: Honeycomb Rows
The HD31 concept by French company Zodiac flips the middle seat. Passengers don’t sit shoulder-to-shoulder, so they get cushions as wide as 24 inches (that’s business-class-level space). The stagger boosts legroom by 4 inches, but you have to face your neighbors.

Consumer Reports recently polled 55,000 of its members about air travel. There were complaints about all aspects, from ticketing to agents checking carry-ons at the gate. But 30 percent of coach-class fliers rated their seats as outright uncomfortable, and every airline received extremely low scores on legroom and cushiness in economy. Clearly, things are dismal and seem to be getting even worse.

They're so bad, in fact, that last year, nonprofit consumer-advocacy group FlyersRights.org filed a suit against the Federal Aviation Administration, after lobbying the agency to stop the squeeze and standardize seat sizes. Lawyers argued that the cramped quarters are dangerous, and, as they continue to shrink, are only getting more so. For Americans—who weigh about 15 pounds more than they did 20 years ago—the chairs can be harder to escape in an emergency. And wedging in and staying stationary for long flights can cause circulation problems. Last July, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of FlyersRights.org, ordering the FAA to review passenger quarters. Judge Patricia Ann Millett dubbed it "The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat." The FAA has yet to propose a path forward.

Even without a public court case, the fact that we're cramped is a secret to no one, particularly statistician and fit expert Kathleen Robinette. She's been measuring airplane seats—among other things—for more than 40 years, which includes a three-decade tenure at the Air Force's research lab. "The Air Force invests a lot of money in it because if their products don't fit, people die," she says. She also oversaw the Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource (CAESAR), an international survey that measured more than 4,000 people to model the range of human shapes and sizes in 3D. Agencies like NASA and companies like American can use the resource as reference for fit.

She’s the one who suggested I bring a tape measure aboard my flight. I thought of her as I tried to capture the sliver from my heels to the bar below my seat, the line of demarcation between my space and another passenger’s luggage. Too minuscule to count.

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The Shell Game: Risers
To jam in more chairs, some carriers are opting to eliminate the recline. By annexing a few inches of vertical space to elevate every other row, the StepSeat concept by Jacob Innovations creates room for passengers to lean back. A rigid shell prevents snoozers from slamming into travelers behind them.

The first airline passenger seats, in the late 1920s, were tacked on. Designers made quick additions, such as leather headrests and cushions, to cheap and light wicker furniture, which they bolted to the craft’s floors. Boeing eventually improved on wicker with bent wood, but it wasn’t until after World War II, once commercial flying became common, that anyone paid much attention to cabin design. Manufacturers—primarily Alcoa, which built aluminum seats—began churning out chairs and, by the mid-1950s, an accidental standard began to emerge. Build seats to accommodate the hips of the largest men, the thinking went, and they’d fit almost everyone. At the time, most men had hips 18 inches or smaller; that’s why most sky-pews are around 18 inches wide, though some shrink as narrow as 16.

Two hefty issues here: First, men’s shoulders are, on average, more than 3 inches broader than their hips. Also, men aren’t the only ones who fly. The average woman’s hips are more than 3 inches wider than a man’s. The seats, from the beginning, fit no one.

But to really understand our current sorry state in the sky, you have to grok how the business of air travel has changed over the past half-century. The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act removed federal control over fares and routes and made it easier for new carriers to launch. Whereas before, the airlines operated almost like utility companies—regionalized, with a few players subject to massive oversight—the industry was suddenly part of the free market. Competition meant a quick drop in fares, so more people could afford to fly.

Then, in the mid ’90s, Priceline and Expedia entered the scene, revealing to the masses the fluctuating nature of airfare, allowing them to see how prices shift by the day and time. “This was really the revolution, the turning point,” explains Seth Miller, an aviation-industry analyst. Suddenly, the average consumer could find bargain flights. In 1965, during what many term the “golden era” of the jet age, only 1 in 5 Americans had ever been on an airplane. Today, that portion is flipped: 1 in 5 have never flown, while about half of us will jet at least once a year.

As ever more of us scramble for cheap airfare, carriers cram in rows by messing with pitch, which is the distance between any point on your seat and the same point on the one in front of you. Before deregulation, the average pitch was about 35 inches, roughly equivalent to today’s domestic business class or “economy plus” upgrades. This past May, reports circulated that American would shrink pitch to 30 inches in most rows; that’s about the norm, but many budget carriers such as Spirit ratchet it down as low as 28 inches. When pitch is less than 30 inches, anyone taller than 5-foot-8 (more than half of American men and about 5 percent of women) is in danger of getting kneecapped by a reclining seat.

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Nope, Nope, Nope: Saddle Seats
Those aren’t roller-coaster seats. They’re the SkyRider 2.0 concept from Italian firm Aviointeriors. Travelers perch atop the saddles in a near-vertical position, a scheme that would allow airlines to squeeze rows closer together and up capacity by 20 percent.

This is not a simple matter of tabulating inches. “Clothes that fit don’t exactly match your measurements,” Robinette, the fit expert, explains. Good design reflects the reality of existence, which is that we move. On a pair of Levi’s, the hips are wider than waistlines, not only because hips by and large are wider than waists, but because they flex and turn and sometimes jiggle and dance. Similarly, moving when seated allows us to shift when our joints get stiff or our butts go numb.

The lack of air between chairs pins us in place, but that’s only part of the airplane pinch. Aside from pitch, designers trim the galleys—where we enter and exit the plane, where the drink carts stow, and where attendants nuke tiny sandwiches and hang out. Once they’re out of annexable space there, they can eat into the bathrooms (the “lavs,” in Airline World).

After apologizing profusely to my girthy, aisle-seated companion, I made my way to the lavs. Once inside, I attempted the classic “I’m in a small room” move, reaching out to see if I could touch both walls at once. No luck, but not because the room was so wide: I couldn’t raise my arms beyond my waist. I stretched my tape measure across the widest point: 34 inches. My elbows could tap both walls.

I maneuvered my measurer over to the toilet and found that the “room” was just 23 inches wide across the bowl. Yikes. Many building codes require residential heads to sit in the middle of a 32-inch or wider span. Commercial codes demand 36 inches. But the FAA has no such requirements: Single-aisle planes like the A321 don’t have to have lavs at all, let alone ones to accommodate the disabled. It’s also a bad situation if you’re a bodybuilder or pregnant. (When Andre the Giant flew, attendants handed him a bucket.) Still, a small room is better than none at all.

The fight for comfort is a struggle among manufacturers (“framers,” in aero lingo), airlines, and passengers. “It’s profit first, then comfort. That’s the battle,” says analyst Miller.

The framers push airlines to think creatively about densification schemes, and display their zeal at conventions. Parts manufacturers like Rockwell-Collins and companies like Boeing and Airbus show concepts with stacked chairs, saddles, pitches as narrow as 24 inches, and even bunks in the cargo hold. “Airbus would love nothing more than to add 11 seats in a row. They mocked it up once, and a bunch of us sat in it. It wasn’t good,” Miller recalls.

Vocal and often unionized flight attendants prevent the carriers from buying into any truly aggressive interiors. Attendants oversee evacuations, and some worry that shrunken seats make it difficult for passengers to exit. Pinched travelers can also be harder to manage. “Flight attendants are left to deal with a myriad of challenges,” an American attendants’ union rep wrote me in an email statement, “including increased incidents of air rage that can only get worse as more airplanes are flying at full capacity.”

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Sky Camp: Bunks
Making room to lie down on long-haul flights typically means airlines can fit fewer travelers on board. Jacob Innovations’ proposed FlexSeat setup stacks the beds. The company claims the tiered cots better accommodate large travelers and provide room for bigger carry-ons. Just be careful standing up.

Market forces may have triggered densification, but passengers share the blame. We want cheap airfare—as every analyst and designer and engineer and attendant I spoke with explained. And we will endure the pinch for the savings. “Do I wish we all had 36 inches of pitch? Of course, but I’m not willing to pay for it,” Miller says, adding, “Most flyers agree: ‘I’ll put my knees to my chin, suffer for three hours, and buy dinner when I get there’ is the logic.”

The few in-flight comforts that remain seek to distract us from our bleak surroundings. Free snacks and TV are calculated moves, and so is the cabin design, explains Roser Roca-Toha of Airbus’ aircraft marketing department. Her team will present a carrier with up to 150 different seating configurations and a slew of aesthetic tweaks, such as cabin colors and mood lighting, to divert discomfort. These user-­experience window dressings—first popularized by Virgin America—can be relatively inexpensive for the airlines. Even the pricey things, such as entertainment, are getting cheaper, as carriers replace $10,000-a-pop seatback screens with in-flight Wi-Fi and access to streaming catalogs through flyers’ own tablets and phones. A more densely packed plane can offset the price of these add-ons in a few months.

Diversion is one of the framers’ last cards to play. They’ve pushed the geometry of seating almost as far as our girth will allow it to go. There’s just one thing left to give: the recline. Those few inches, Roca-Toha explains, might slightly improve one person’s situation but will likely downgrade that of whoever’s behind them. If one flyer reclines, the rest of the plane also has to, if only to reclaim the space ceded to the instigator. “A good compromise is a pre-recline—a natural recline that is fixed in place. It’s kinder, and more natural,” Roca-Toha says. Frontier Airlines and Spirit now have stationary, pre-reclined seats, and overseas carriers British Airways, Norwegian, and Ryanair have also opted to do away with leanable chairs.

My fellow passengers and I navigated these tiny spaces while we hurtled above the southwestern Sonoran desert. In this moment, in transit to work or our loved ones, the cabin design forced us in each other’s way. Getting into and out of my row, I’d apologized to my seatmates. A few rows up, another man did the same; “I have terrible news,” he said, announcing himself to his neighbors.

We blame each other, and ourselves, for our discomfort. But we are wrong. “It’s not you,” Robinette says. “Most people are near average size. That’s literally why it’s an average. But people assume it’s them, not the product.” It’s the product. It can be fixed.

Right now, nearly everyone is, to varying degrees, uncomfortable on an airplane. And yet sometimes, we band together and cry out: Enough! The designers do listen. Roca-Toha explains that passenger feedback—from survey cards and online forms—is the most powerful tool framers have in perfecting craft.

I was skeptical, but she’s right. Remember American’s plan to add more seats across its fleet? The scheme would have chopped pitch to 29 inches on the carrier’s new 737s, but attendants and passengers protested, taking to Twitter and Facebook to complain. The company instead cut its extra-legroom option on one row, and spread the space across the economy cabin, holding pitch at 30 inches. An extra inch of wiggle room is a small victory for us, but consider the airline’s sacrifice: the padded profits from thousands of upgraded trips. If we can do that, maybe we can do one better. Wider seats? Roomier rows? Or we can start small: No saddle seats, ever.

https://getpocket.com/explore/item/why-bigger-planes-mean-cramped-quarters

 

 

 

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SkyMan

Given the look of some of those effed up ideas above,  why don't they just hang rails from the ceiling with meat hooks like an abattoir? The could have the rails start in the gate area. Preboarding would consist of big guys going around throwing everyone up on a hook and then for boarding they just push all the meat down the gangway and pack it in the plane. No more need for bathrooms or galleys. Seats and restraints not required because it's all packed in there tight 

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smokey

Well you can always go into politics and fly first class every time

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Ozepete

At least you get a seat!  Think about cattle, they have to stand the whole trip and if you're on the lower deck the ones above piss and crap on ya!  :cry:

Perhaps it will be the next step for air lines to have standing only!

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Davaoeno
15 minutes ago, Ozepete said:

if you're on the lower deck the ones above piss and crap on ya!

shitting room only !

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cookie47

Me and the Mr's were "bumped" off an Emirates flight in Singapore last year going to London,,, Sorry Sir Overbooked.....

But ill get you on a British Airways 380 direct to London and give you meal vouchers whilst waiting . Ok, who cares... Move on.. 

Ahh, A380 lovely large Aircraft "I thought" NAH,, legroom for a 6f.2 was crap and worse than the Airbus 320 from Cebu.. They might advertise the A380 as a large Aircraft, but not for cattle class.. 

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The OP’s article is badly titled. It’s not the size of the aircraft that’s the problem, it’s the number of seats that the airline wants to stuff into it. 
 

Both the 747 and 380 caused airports to have to rethink how they would handle the passenger count. 
 

Anyone arriving at a large airport, “capable” of taking multiple, large aircraft at the same time, knows how well they did that exercise with respect to immigration, security and baggage. 

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Headshot

The decreasing leg room on flights has nothing to do with the airlines getting larger planes. The legroom on A320's and B737's has been reduced as well. Even leg room on the small commuter-type planes has decreased over time. It is a business decision by the airlines to carry more and more passengers on their flights by adding rows to the seating area, regardless of a reduction of passenger comfort. If passengers don't like the way airlines are treating their customers, then they should bash them at every opportunity on their websites, on review sites and on social media of all types. I guarantee that airlines will not go long, if they are getting constant and overwhelming criticism of their business decisions, before they respond ... and in this case, the only possible response is for them to provide more leg room (less rows).

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Davaoeno

Mmmmm  let's see how those passengers like it when fares go up by 15% to make up for the decrease in saleable seats 

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Headshot
20 minutes ago, Davaoeno said:

Mmmmm  let's see how those passengers like it when fares go up by 15% to make up for the decrease in saleable seats 

That may be true, but somehow in the early days of airlines, they managed to make money and still give adequate leg room. If increasing costs, such as fuel costs, cause their profit margins to go down, maybe they just need to raise the fares to make up for it. As it is, fares are all over the board, but leg room suffers. If premium economy was available on all aircraft, then those of us who need more leg room could just pay a little more for it, but many aircraft don't have premium economy seating. For myself, it isn't as much of an issue anymore, since I have switched over to business class whenever possible (not all flights have business class available).

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SkyMan
8 hours ago, Headshot said:

The decreasing leg room on flights has nothing to do with the airlines getting larger planes. The legroom on A320's and B737's has been reduced as well. Even leg room on the small commuter-type planes has decreased over time. It is a business decision by the airlines to carry more and more passengers on their flights by adding rows to the seating area, regardless of a reduction of passenger comfort. If passengers don't like the way airlines are treating their customers, then they should bash them at every opportunity on their websites, on review sites and on social media of all types. I guarantee that airlines will not go long, if they are getting constant and overwhelming criticism of their business decisions, before they respond ... and in this case, the only possible response is for them to provide more leg room (less rows).

I don't think social media would do much.  They all get bashed regularly and all do the same things.  What will work is money.  People who don't like to be cramped shouldn't buy cattle class or fly at all.  But people will continue to fly and buy the cramped seats so the airlines will provide them and it's lump it or leave it.  Unless the FAA can be leveraged into regulating it for some safety reason or other, it won't change.

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Headshot

I suspect that the only reason the airlines have started configuring some planes with "premium economy class" seats is because the airlines have been hammered by criticism because of the lack of leg room. You might be surprised to know how some entries in social media grow legs and become a shot heard around the world. Like I said, that is a perfectly reasonable response, if they put premium economy seating on all planes, and maybe that is their plan for the future. If passengers want the extra leg room, but don't want to pay business class prices, then premium economy gives them an alternative to cramped legs without too much extra expenditure.

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SkyMan
9 hours ago, Headshot said:

You might be surprised to know how some entries in social media grow legs and become a shot heard around the world.

Not for something like this though.  All the airlines do it and everyone knows it already but people gotta fly so there you have it.  Part of the problem is that it isn't really universal. Shorter pax don't care nor do people who fly little.  It's only the taller or more frequent fliers with the problem.  Premium Economy might help some but realize they would just separate a few rows a little and push the regular economy closer still.  When economy fliers complain they can just say if you don't like it, pay for premium economy.  As PE becomes more popular there will be more and more rows of PE at the higher prices and less cattle class.  Then you'll have airlines saying all their seats are premium economy and they'll start packing them together again.

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cookie47

Refer my previous post...

I was a little peed off because we had chosen Emirates due to having a 34 inch seat pitch compared with 31 on BA.. All available on Seat Guru..
I noticed that "most" carriers have 31 inch... Btw..

Just that little amount makes all the difference of not having, and having, your knees in the back of the passenger in front. Plus we chose on that particular occasion (and would again) to split a long haul flight due to my poor leg circulation. Thus a three hour transit change to London (in Dubai) suits us just fine,, to get off, find our new gate (if required) , Coffee, wander around. Of course it wouldn't be ok for everyone but that's us (Seniors).

So being "bumped" off the Emirates flight to a Direct 12 hour with BA with 31 inch seat pitch was a little frustrating.(and i know our US/Canadian members do these long haul flights regularly... I'm not complaining, its just my planning didn't work out.



Sent from my Redmi Note 3 using Tapatalk

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