Somewhere Over America

Even Tighter Airline Seats? Yes, Four Ways

Sitting in a standard coach airline seat makes United’s “Flyer Friendly” commercial into a bit of a joke. You know the one — an entire symphony orchestra sits in coach class and magically has enough room to play Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” There’s no mistaking this for reality TV. The thing is, it’s no joke for people with obesity who have to fly.

Sadly, airline seats are likely to get even tighter. Here are four techniques that airlines are planning to use so they can cram more seats into the same tin box.

  1. No reclining. Spirit Airlines squeezes an extra 28 seats onto an A320 by making their seats impossible to move. With masterful spin, they call it a good thing that saves you from being bothered by an annoying person in front of you moving his seat.
     
  2. Shrinking seat width to 17 inches. American Airlines is cramming an extra seat into every coach class row of its new Boeing 777-300s by shrinking seats from more than 18 inches to just 17 inches wide. For comparison, the Cornell Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Group states that a seat width of 20 to 22 inches is necessary to accommodate clothed adults.
     
  3. Shrinking to 28 inches between rows. While people have been getting bigger, airlines have been busy shrinking the space between rows from 34 inches to as little as 30 inches. Some are now ready to move down to 28 inches between rows.
     
  4. Removing padding from seats. Slim-line seats that eliminate padding — along with other measures — will allow Southwest Airlines to add six more seats to every plane. What was that stupid padding for, anyway?

 
It’s not hard to see where this is heading. Airlines deftly maintain that they are simply meeting customer needs for low airfares. And then they pivot to blame the people who are too big to fit in their smaller seats. Never mind that it’s now the majority of Americans. So long as they can turn angry, crowded passengers against each other, all they have to do is count the money.

It’s working. Flying is becoming an increasingly mean experience as people go after each other to defend their space. Lindy West recently described “what it feels like to be a fat person on a plane” in Jezebel:

Even worse than any physical pain is the anxiety of walking up the aisle and not knowing what plane you’re on. Am I going to fit this time? Will I have to ask for a seat belt extender? Is this a 17-incher or an 18-incher? Did I get on early enough that I can get myself crammed in before someone comes and sits next to me? Is the person next to me going to hate me? Does everyone on this plane hate me? I paid money for this?

Seating in most other public accommodations is regulated — for example by building codes. Average theater seats are 22 inches wide, sufficient for most people. Public places, including airlines, must accommodate people with all kinds of disabilities.

Yet somehow, airlines can make a large number of large people into the villains as they cram more and more seats into planes so they can extract more profit from their passengers. Because people will turn on each other, the airlines pay no price.

Airbus has proposed mixing in larger 20-inch seats on their planes to provide a way to accommodate larger passengers. But they’ve gotten no airlines to take them up on their idea.

We need some civilized standards. Until we have them, you can expect flying to become an ever more hostile experience. Take a train if you can.

Click here to read more in the New York Times, here to read more in the Wall Street Journal, and here to read more in Jezebel.

Somewhere Over America, photograph © Thomas Hawk / flickr

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