Beleaguered, outsize traveler Eric Hagerman investigates
Posted 04.27.2009 at 10:29 am
Leg Up, Tray Table Down
Watch out for the reclining seat back
I am not normal. Not even close, I am told. Apparently, my height, which at 6'4" has always seemed to me to be just this side of freakish, puts me in the 99th percentile of American adults. That is, statistically too tall to fly comfortably in coach.
Or at least that's the explanation I was given by Klaus Brauer, Boeing's immaculately articulate guru of airline interior design, whose conflicted job title is Director, Passenger Satisfaction & Revenue. "There are many good things about being 6'4", Brauer told me over speakerphone, from what I imagined to be a cushy office chair in Seattle. "Flying economy class is not one of them."
Assume Position: Bland Designs
Pithy. But my towering frame doesn't explain why most people I know — who reside in that bulge of the anthropometric bell curve known as average — find seating in coach class to be nearly as miserable as I do. Is it such a monumental challenge to make a comfy airplane seat? The typical cushion is so hard that I no longer travel in my favorite jeans because the compressed pocket stitching leaves me with painful welts. As for legroom, flying on certain planes makes me wish I could gate-check my femurs. Would comfort somehow compromise my safety? (I might better tolerate the leg edema knowing that my constricted posture was for a greater cause — like surviving a crash.) Or does it boil down to cold, hard economics: The leaner and meaner the seat, the easier it is to cram more customers onto a plane.
While we've watched from behind the curtain as first class got flat-lying beds, coach-class seating has barely evolved in 30 years. Boeing now makes entire planes out of carbon fiber, yet advances in engineering don't seem to have trickled down to where it counts — beneath my behind. Are they even trying?
Armed with such urgent questions, I pressed Brauer. To be fair, our discomfort is not exactly his fault. Boeing, like Airbus and other manufacturers, doesn't even make the seats that go on its aircraft; airlines buy them from specialty suppliers. But Brauer, a former Air Force officer and mechanical engineer, still has a lot to do with our in-flight comfort. He's been researching it almost since he started at Boeing in 1979 and consults with airlines on how seat configurations balance comfort against the bottom line. His calculations largely led to the 777's shift to three rows of three, from the "2-5-2" configuration, which allows everyone to have a free seat next to them when the plane is 67 percent full (versus 44 percent).