According to Joe Sharkey, the New York Tines business travel writer, airplanes are taking off fuller than ever. For example, Continental Airline’s July load factor, the average percentage of seats full on flights, was 88 percent. A new bums on seats record. The rest of the U.S. airlines are expected to report similar results. Sounds familiar I am sure. But you’re probably thinking, if every flight I board is always 100% full, these stats must be wrong, right? Well, think about it. These figures are averages of all flights, so for every full plane, there’s one somewhere that flew at say 75%. Today traveling on full planes is more of a chore than ever, with passengers furious about being nickel and dimed, packed overhead bins as more passengers fly with the kitchen sink, apathetic cabin crews (Jet Blue excepted!), lousy refreshments, and disappearing empty seats.
Full planes have taken away on of our favorite airline comforts, yes, that empty middle seat. According to www.Independent Traveler.com, research by Boeing revealed that the number uno reason for passenger perception of comfort is; an empty seat next to you. Unfortunately that seat is always occupied and, unless you are built like an anorexic midget, its occupant is almost bound to impinge on your space. Airlines like to boast of seat pitches, but less attention is paid to seat width because the dirty little secret is that it hasn’t changed by any significant amount. Which, compounded with, ahem, bigger people flying does not a happy camper make.
So let’s get the skinny on, the very bottom line of what has been happening in the wonderful world of airline seats. Hint; nada, zip, not a lot.
Seat width, measured simply as the width of the actual seat cushion, was 17” on the Boeing 707 introduced in 1959, and right now only varies between 17” and 18.5” Even the new Airbus A380 (double-decker) has seats of 18.1” width. Not much progress you say, and you are right. Of course, we are talking sardine class; the fat cats at the pointed end in Business and 1st Class get appropriately wide fat-cat seats.
According to Boeing, their new 787 “Dreamliner” will be sold with two economy class configurations. If an airline selects the 3-3-3 and the 2-5-2 passenger density layout (maxpax?), seat widths will be 17.18” (don’t you just love the two decimal points of accuracy, suggests desperation!). If the 3-2-3 or 2-4-2 arrangement is selected then seat-bottom widths will be 18.5”, comparable to that found on its current 777, and apparently recommended by detailed passenger ergonomics studies. Not quite sure what “detailed passenger ergonomic studies” were used. Perhaps their test subjects were ergenomes! Boeing expects most airlines expected to select the 3-3-3 maxpax configuration. No surprise there. So over the last 51 years, during a time of immense change in transportation, such as spaceflight, launching satellites (one of which is now actually leaving the solar system), the airlines have worked hard to provide increasingly efficient plane designs, reduced fuel consumption, and have generously provided to cattle class customers, the very bread and butter (or bane?) of their existence, their very raison d’être, and so on, just over one whole inch extra for their burgeoning muffin tops. Whoopdeedo.
So, let’s see how this extra inch compares. Don’t get excited ladies! According to the U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the average BMI (body mass index, a weight-for-height formula used to measure obesity) over the last few years has increased significantly. Average adult Americans are about one inch taller, but nearly a whopping 25 pounds heavier than they were in 1960. Ah, note the use of the word average. That means, that there are people above and below the mean (above; anywhere in Florida. below; New York). Apparently, average BMI has increased among adults from approximately 25 in 1960 to 28 in 2002. Also, the average weight for men aged 20-74 years rose dramatically from 166 pounds in 1960 to 191 pounds in 2002, while the average weight for women the same age increased from 140 pounds in 1960 to 164 pounds in 2002. Oink!
So, the obvious question is: if seat-widths haven’t expanded along with the nation’s waistline, where do they think this extra mass is going to go? In the overhead locker, under the seat, in the seat-back pocket, the sick bag (plastic lined to prevent leakage!), or even checked luggage? Amazing isn’t it, that over the same period that we have basically put on weight equivalent to two supermarket bags of potatoes the airlines have resolutely stick their head in the sands and said TSB.
Unfortunately it’s worse for the middle seat passenger, the equivalent of airline hell. You may not know but airlines tend to fill up the middle seats last, understandably because nobody, but nobody would choose to sit there. The flying equivalent of restaurant Siberia, the table by the rest-room door. There you have worst of both worlds, can’t look out the window, can’t stretch your feet out in the aisle (useful for tripping up that little ADHD afflicted tyke from the seat in front of you). Either side of you the seated passenger has actual elbow room, enough to lean next to the window, nestling in the gentle curvature of the plane’s fuselage, whilst the aisle seat user can confidently wave his elbows around, open the newspaper full width, jab the cabin crew in their thighs, as they pass. What does Mr. Middle Seat have for his penance? Not much. And have you ever tried eating with your elbows literally pinned to your ribcage? Probably just easier to bob your head forward like some demented chicken, hoping to hoover up some of the slop, without making too much of a mess, In fact, the airlines should provide extra wide straws for middle seat sufferers, that way you could just suck it all up.
So, where does all of this extra oomph go, bearing in mind that we have a whole lateral inch to play with. It has to go somewhere, and it does. It tends to settle below the armrest. As your fellow flyer oozes into his space, you feel it against your upper thigh. Nice. There’s nothing like the unwelcome touch of your fellow passenger’s body parts. Ick! And have you noticed that your fellow flyers have always got bigger elbows than you. True, true, true. So, as for dibs on the arm-rests, fuggedaboutit! Battery hens have more space.
When you think about it, it’s quite disconcerting sharing space with total strangers. Not even New York restaurants have seats that close, and that is saying something!
Happy flying. Or not.