In Search of In-Flight Cabin Comfort
When it comes to economy class air travel, comfort is not always a word that comes to mind. In an attempt to increase revenue, some airlines have shrunken seats in order to fit more bodies on board. There are now six additional seats on Alaska Airlines’ Boeing 737-800 aircraft and nine on its 737-900. Southwest Airlines added six seats to its Boeing 737 planes, and United Airlines squeezed six onto its Airbus A319s and A320s.
Many of these new seats are made with lighter materials, thinner cushions, and a more efficient design in order to maximize cabin space. Lighter seats lead to the need for less fuel—another incentive for airlines. Southwest, for example, has projected the new, slim-line seats will help save $10 million a year.
“Lighter seats mean less weight, and anything that lightens the load of an aircraft saves the airline fuel and therefore money,” Mary Anne Greczyn, manager of communications for Airbus Americas, says. She adds, however, that, “materials and seat designs continue to evolve and optimize, and you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice weight advantages to use a wider seat.”
According to Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers (NAAP), the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates only three things when it comes to seating on an airplane: the width of the aisle, the number of seats on each side of the aisle (a max of three), and the average passenger weight, including carry-on luggage. This means there is no set standard for seat width, although the norm since the 1950s has been around 17 inches.
As for seat pitch, which involves the amount of legroom passengers have, Douglas says the Douglas DC-3 fixed-wing propeller plane of the 1930s and ’40s had a pitch of 39 inches and the Boeing 707 used from the 1950s through the ’70s had a pitch of 34 inches. Today’s average pitch: 31 inches.
According to TripAdvisor’s Annual Travel Survey, released in February of this year, uncomfortable seats and limited legroom landed in the top five biggest complaints about air travel, with 38 percent of respondents saying more legroom is the No. 1 thing airlines could do to improve the in-flight passenger experience.
NAAP, Douglas says, is working to make that improvement a reality. The association is in the process of putting together a request for the FAA to regulate seat width and pitch with the hope of increasing them to 19 inches and 36 inches, respectively.
Although some airlines and plane manufacturers don’t seem to mind if their passengers are squished like sardines, others side with the NAAP and are working to increase passenger satisfaction on board. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus recently revealed new research regarding the impact seat width has on passenger comfort. The study, conducted by the London Sleep Centre, showed a minimum seat width of 18 inches improved passenger sleep quality by 53 percent when compared with the standard 17 inches.
“It’s clear wider seats are a benefit for the 85 percent of passengers who travel in economy,” Mary Anne says. “Airbus has long featured cabins that can easily accommodate an 18-inch seat in economy, and, for the sake of the flying public, we are calling on the industry to set 18 inches as the standard for long-haul comfort.”
According to Mary Anne, all of Airbus’ long haul-capable aircraft—the A330, A350, and A380—are a part of the manufacturer’s “Cabin Comfort” initiative, which aims to create an inviting environment for airline passengers and make the entire flying experience as pleasant as possible.
“We see the need for in-flight comfort to mimic what is happening in other industries; stadium and theater seats are wider in newer venues than in their older counterparts, for example,” Mary Anne says. “Wider seats mean happier, healthier people.”