Over the past 50 years, the space between rows (i.e., the pitch) has compressed by an average of 4 inches. Some budget carriers offer only 28 inches between seats, the tiniest space yet allotted on a commercial flight. Chairs have also transformed, from pillowy cushions to fire-resistant-but-minimal pads, each less than 20 pounds. Trimmer profiles, though, slide butts back in the seats, restoring a few inches of lost legroom.
Until the ’90s, it was rare to find someone in the middle seat; most flights were less than two-thirds full, and people (naturally) grab windows and aisles first. That empty space meant passengers had more room to stretch out, boarding moved more quickly, and bin shortages were blessedly uncommon. Today, cheaper fares mean nearly nine out of 10 spots are taken on an average flight.
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And yet, you grow
As legroom contracts and seats narrow, passengers’ bodies are going in the opposite direction. Most Americans are more than 25 pounds heavier than their 1960s counterparts. That extra weight generally hangs around people’s waists, making the squeeze between armrests tighter. We’ve also grown an inch taller, bringing seatbacks and luggage bins even closer.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 Tiny issue of Popular Science.