Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Shrinking Airline Seat and Expanding Passenger Dilemma

I saw sat next to a very large person on a flight some years back. I was jammed into a seat, and the passenger next to him sat down. He splutters and coughs:

That’s disgusting. When did you last smoke! You stink!

Without skipping a beat, she responded:

When did you last eat?

He didn’t have anything else to say.

The shrinking airline carry-on

When standing waiting for a flight, airlines will measure that your luggage fits inside a metal cage. If your luggage is deemed to be oversized or overweight, they’ll ask you to pay to check the baggage, and it will go in the hold.

Airlines started to charge for checked baggage, and this led to a decrease in carry-on sizes. Airlines realize that they can derive greater revenue from more checked baggage, and also that 200 passengers with carry-ons and gate-checked baggage increases the time to board the plane. In the airline industry, time is money.

I don’t mind these rules because in the US there is a pretty clear set of rules – a carry-on is up to 22″x14″x9″ or 2700cuin, plus a personal item of 16″x14″x8″ (this depends on an airline, but it covers a handbag or laptop bag). If they run out of space, they will gate-check the bag for free. Yes, these sizes vary by airline but those sizes are a good guide to fit on any flight.

In Europe this is much rougher, with a lot of airlines offering only one item sized 19″x14″x8″ and a 16lb limit.

Either way, whether you like it or not, you know where you stand, and if you need more space, you can pay for it in the hold of the plane at agreed rates.

The Shrinking Airline Seat

Incredibly, airline seats have been shrinking over the last 10 years as they try to fit more passengers in a plane. I’m currently sat in a standard 18″ economy seat with a 32″ pitch. It’s cosy, but some international flights have 17″ or even 16.5″ wide seats.

Now the average male shoulder width is 18″. I’m a little above average and that means that my shoulders extend past the seats, which is fine, so long as I have an aisle or a window seat. In addition, the 32″ pitch is fine for my 34″ legs, so long as the person in front of me doesn’t want to recline.

But yes, many airlines have reduced the seat width now to be smaller than the average male.

The Expanding Waist Line

In parallel with the shrinking airline seat is the expanding waistline. A Gallup Poll reports that self-reported weight has increased 20lb since 1990. If you believe the CDC, Americans are 1″ taller and 25% heavier than in 1960.

This means that expanding passengers are stuffed into narrower seats that are smaller than the average person.

The seat sizes are driven by the economies of flying, as well as the fact that an increase in seat sizes would mean fewer seats, thereby dramatically driving prices up during peak periods. During quiet periods, center seats are often empty, solving the problem.

What size person is fair to sit in a seat?

If you buy a seat on a plane, you should feel entitled to have that seat. But since the seat is smaller than the average person, if you put three average, 5’9.5″, 195lb males in three adjacent seats, they will be very uncomfortable.

I’ve been in a flight wedged between two very big men and I can attest it is very miserable. There’s no room for elbows, arms, shoulders.

Should we have people size cages?

One solution to this would be to have size cages but for people. If you can fit in, then you’re on the flight. Otherwise you have to pay for a seat (or seats) that can fit the larger passenger.

Writer and director Kevin Smith was thrown off a SouthWest flight for this reason, though it’s not clear just how big he was. As an aside, he has since lost a load of weight.

Some people would argue that weight is a personal choice, and therefore if you choose to weigh more, you choose to need to buy a more expensive seat.

What about for those who are genetically taller? The average American is 5’9.5″, but there are many that are 6’3″ or even taller. Should those people who don’t have a choice on their size also have to buy a bigger seat?

Difficult ethical questions.

What about the person next to them?

As for the person next to them, they also paid for their seat and rightly feel entitled to the space they paid for. Unfortunately, since the seats are only sized for an average-sized person, any above-average size person will eat into the seat next door (or the window area or aisle).

That person probably feels understandably cheated of the space they paid for, and as friend Leonardo De Araujo said:

And what about recliners

Whilst we’re there, we should discuss recliners. British newspaper The Telegraph makes the case for banning them altogether.

I’m actually in favor of this because there’s always some poor person who has an exit row or back seat that won’t recline, and they are the ones that suffer with even less space. Since reclined airline seats are lower than when they are upright, the average number of cubic inches per passenger reduces when all the seats are reclined. And if the person in front of you reclines, you are more or less obliged to.

Free Market Economies

The capitalists amongst us would argue that in a free market, consumers will buy tickets from those airlines who provide comfortable seating, but in reality, consumers buy tickets based on a number of factors, including price, convenience and available routes, loyalty programs, overall customer satisfaction. In many cases there is no choice of carrier, and where there is a choice, there are other factors that may affect a purchase.

What should be done?

One thing is for sure – something has to change. Some advocate regulation of airline seat sizes and there is some sense in this, when a market is unable to self-regulate for the overall best interests of the customer. Others advocate that customers should pay for a whole seat and get a whole seat. This would drive passengers that don’t fit into a regular seat into obesity seating, which presumably would attract a charge, as you would get only 5 seats wide instead of 6, so would cost (at least) 20% more. Steve Rumsby put it simply with:  

In parallel with this needs to come a pragmatic seating policy from airlines. There are aways bulkhead seats available, and many airlines now offer “premium economy seating” for domestic flights which have 2-3″ of extra leg room. Why not use these seats to the best interest of the overall traveling populous?

What do you think?