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Observations from the middle seat: Why we’re feeling the squeeze when we fly

December 18, 2017

By Dave Dargie

Seat pitch has decreased 5 inches, seat width has decreased 2 inches—and airplanes are more full. It adds up to a lot of discomfort.

During a recent business trip, I boarded a Boeing 737 aircraft and worked my way toward the back of airplane. Row 27E, a cozy middle seat not far from the lavatories and the galley located in the back of the aircraft. 

With my personal item in hand, a backpack filled with my laptop, business files, magazines, etc., I maneuvered into my seat between two other passengers. As customary, I placed my backpack beneath the seat in front of me, but only after some contortions. In turn, and to the dismay of my adjacent passengers, I removed my overcoat in hopes of finding some relative comfort during my four-hour flight. With my coat heaped on my lap, I was finally buckled into my seat and ready for the journey back to Boston. As with most flights, I try to take advantage of some uninterrupted time to catch-up on emails. So once at altitude, I once again twisted and turned to gain access to my backpack and retrieve my laptop. As for my seatmates, both trying to nap under the dull roar of the jet engines, their grim expressions spoke volumes.

More often than not, the above is a common ritual during today’s modern air travel. I often reflect on the days when air travel was more enjoyable, in part due to the overall comfort of the flights themselves. Flights were less crowded, seats wider, and seat pitch was more generous.

The incredible shrinking seat

My struggles in securing and retrieving my backpack from beneath the seat in front of me was/is a function of seat pitchPitch is defined as the distance from any given point on a seat to the same point on the seat in the next (front or back) row. The larger the pitch, the more leg room. Today, we all know, there simply isn’t much room in the front of one’s seat cushion to the back of the seat in front of you. And yes ... some airlines are considering further reductions in pitch to increase the number of rows that can be incorporated into a given aircraft. Seat pitch has decreased as much as 5 inches over the past 30 years on select airlines. 

And it doesn’t stop there. Airlines also reduce pitch by minimizing the “thickness” of the seatback. The thinner the seat back, the less the pitch, and another opportunity to squeeze in yet another row of seats. The relative plushness of aircraft seats of today could well become a thing of the past.

Seat width has also decreased over the past two decades, an average of about 2 inches for every seat in coach. Narrow seats make more room for paying passengers. And, they allow for wider aisles, which are important for quick and efficient aircraft boarding and deplaning. As the number of passenger seats per aircraft increase, the need for efficient aircraft turnaround time becomes more critical. 

More weight in less seat

This refinement, much like the decrease in seat pitch, is an effort to increase passenger load factors. Passenger load factors, or aircraft capacity utilization, is crudely defined as how full an aircraft is during a given scheduled flight. The higher the load factor—the more passengers in those increasingly small seats—the more profitable the route. Consider this: the average load factor in 1997 for domestic travel in the United States was approximately 67 percent. The trend for 2017 is currently 84 percent. The days of having a vacant seat by your side are rapidly diminishing.  

Next, let’s look at the relative comfort and mobility factor. Airplane seats are getting narrower yet humans as a rule are getting heavier, broader, and less fit—a trend that has been ongoing for the better part of three decades now. Demographics also play a role. More than 8 percent of the world’s population are age 65 or older, and this figure is expected to double over the next three decades. Narrower seats prove uncomfortable for a large portion of the traveling public and can present mobility issues for our aging population. It’s simply not realistic to establish aircraft turnaround times based on an unrealistic cross-section of the traveling public. Not everyone is young, trim, and fit!

What does the future look like?

Despite these challenges, air travel is near historic record levels, and there is little doubt that this trend will continue across all spectrums into the next decade. International travel is especially robust, and many airports in North America are undertaking (or planning to undertake) large airport infrastructure development projects to support larger aircraft and more frequent airport operations. As with any business model, it’s likely that airlines will continue to explore the many avenues of capitalizing on the economic theory of supply and demand. To that end, airline profits in recent years have also reached record levels. So, don’t expect philosophical changes in seat pitch or width anytime soon.  

We all must hope the Federal Aviation Administration has the best interests of our behind in mind since the agency has the authority to regulate these changes as a function of passenger safety and comfort—every type of aircraft has an approved maximum number of passengers per model type. The FAA must approve any changes this number. 

For those who travel for business and/or pleasure, I suggest the following:

  • Fly first class! Assuming that is not an option …
  • Travel direct; avoid layovers.
  • Pack light.
  • Board early to ensure available overhead storage.
  • Eat (modestly) in the terminal. It’s always better than airplane food (which is increasingly nonexistent).
  • Book early in hopes of avoiding a middle seat.
  • And pack a dose of patience and good sense of humor! Sometimes you just need to roll with the system.

Safe travels wherever you are going!

  • Dave Dargie

    Dave’s specialized in airfield design and construction administration activities.

    Contact Dave
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