The flight was typical: It was full, getting to my seat took forever, and, once I did, the overhead-bin space had run out. So I shoved my backpack under the seat in front of me, where my feet should have gone. I was in the middle—row 31, seat E, American Airlines flight 2070, Phoenix to San Francisco. My neighbors had claimed the armrests, so I had to wedge myself in place, elbows pinched against my ribs or folded toward my lap. I’d be uncomfortable for the duration of the one-hour-and-50-minute flight. As I said: typical. While I origamied my fairly average 5-foot-11, 172-pound frame into position, I realized I needed something from my bag. I leaned forward and hit my head on the seat in front of me. OK, going straight in wasn’t an option; I’d have to veer out of my allotted space. To my left sat a girthy man, his aisle-side arm resting upon his prodigious belly, the other spilling over the armrest and nearly into my lap. To my right, by the window, was a short but still quite stocky fellow; he wore large headphones, the bill of his ball cap tilted low. I began moving, very slightly, this way and that, in a manner not unlike someone parallel parking a semi. I tilted my torso down into the space near the shorter man’s legs and turned to face the aisle-side girthy man, my nose suddenly an inch from his arm. He recoiled. I apologized, and gestured toward my backpack. As I carefully dug around by my feet, a toddler wailed, and I thought, That is the sound we are all making on the inside. Our bodies want to move, and airplanes try to keep us still. We spill into each other’s spaces, banging elbows and heads as we do what we’re built to do.
The toddler was still screaming when I felt the heavy metal square I was looking for: a tape measure. I sat up and began my assessments. Between the seat in front of me and my knees: less than 5 inches. Across my lap, from one armrest to the other: 17.3 inches. My aisle-side companion raised his eyebrows but said nothing. I tried to gauge how wide a berth my elbows needed, and bumped the window-side guy. He grunted and sighed. Somewhere between 19 and 20 inches.
The ironic thing about the compressed state of air travel today is that planes are getting larger. The jet I was on, an Airbus A321, stretches nearly 23 feet longer than its predecessor, the A320. More space, more passengers, more profit. These bigger planes are increasingly the most common variants—both on American Airlines and across all carriers. The current Boeing 737s, the world’s most flown craft, are all longer than the original by up to 45 feet. And yet, on the inside, we’re getting squeezed.
That’s because more space doesn’t equal more space in Airline World. It equals more seats—and typically less room per person. In 2017, for example, word leaked that American was planning to add six economy spots to its A320s, nine to its A321s, and 12 (that’s two rows) to its Boeing 737-800s. JetBlue is reportedly ramming 12 extras into its A320s, and Delta’s will gain 10. And, come 2020, you’ll likely find more seats on every United plane.
In Airline World, they call this densification, which is a silly word. Passengers call it arrrgh!
Consumer Reports recently polled 55,000 of its members about air travel. There were complaints about all aspects, from ticketing to agents checking carry-ons at the gate. But 30 percent of coach-class fliers rated their seats as outright uncomfortable, and every airline received extremely low scores on legroom and cushiness in economy. Clearly, things are dismal and seem to be getting even worse.
They’re so bad, in fact, that last year, nonprofit consumer-advocacy group FlyersRights.org filed a suit against the Federal Aviation Administration, after lobbying the agency to stop the squeeze and standardize seat sizes. Lawyers argued that the cramped quarters are dangerous, and, as they continue to shrink, are only getting more so. For Americans—who weigh about 15 pounds more than they did 20 years ago—the chairs can be harder to escape in an emergency. And wedging in and staying stationary for long flights can cause circulation problems. Last July, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of FlyersRights.org, ordering the FAA to review passenger quarters. Judge Patricia Ann Millett dubbed it “The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat.” The FAA has yet to propose a path forward.
Even without a public court case, the fact that we’re cramped is a secret to no one, particularly statistician and fit expert Kathleen Robinette. She’s been measuring airplane seats—among other things—for more than 40 years, which includes a three-decade tenure at the Air Force’s research lab. “The Air Force invests a lot of money in it because if their products don’t fit, people die,” she says. She also oversaw the Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource (CAESAR), an international survey that measured more than 4,000 people to model the range of human shapes and sizes in 3D. Agencies like NASA and companies like American can use the resource as reference for fit.
She’s the one who suggested I bring a tape measure aboard my flight. I thought of her as I tried to capture the sliver from my heels to the bar below my seat, the line of demarcation between my space and another passenger’s luggage. Too minuscule to count.
A tight history
The first airline passenger seats, in the late 1920s, were tacked on. Designers made quick additions, such as leather headrests and cushions, to cheap and light wicker furniture, which they bolted to the craft’s floors. Boeing eventually improved on wicker with bent wood, but it wasn’t until after World War II, once commercial flying became common, that anyone paid much attention to cabin design. Manufacturers—primarily Alcoa, which built aluminum seats—began churning out chairs and, by the mid-1950s, an accidental standard began to emerge. Build seats to accommodate the hips of the largest men, the thinking went, and they’d fit almost everyone. At the time, most men had hips 18 inches or smaller; that’s why most sky-pews are around 18 inches wide, though some shrink as narrow as 16.
Two hefty issues here: First, men’s shoulders are, on average, more than 3 inches broader than their hips. Also, men aren’t the only ones who fly. The average woman’s hips are more than 3 inches wider than a man’s. The seats, from the beginning, fit no one.
But to really understand our current sorry state in the sky, you have to grok how the business of air travel has changed over the past half-century. The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act removed federal control over fares and routes and made it easier for new carriers to launch. Whereas before, the airlines operated almost like utility companies—regionalized, with a few players subject to massive oversight—the industry was suddenly part of the free market. Competition meant a quick drop in fares, so more people could afford to fly.
Then, in the mid ’90s, Priceline and Expedia entered the scene, revealing to the masses the fluctuating nature of airfare, allowing them to see how prices shift by the day and time. “This was really the revolution, the turning point,” explains Seth Miller, an aviation-industry analyst. Suddenly, the average consumer could find bargain flights. In 1965, during what many term the “golden era” of the jet age, only 1 in 5 Americans had ever been on an airplane. Today, that portion is flipped: 1 in 5 have never flown, while about half of us will jet at least once a year.
As ever more of us scramble for cheap airfare, carriers cram in rows by messing with pitch, which is the distance between any point on your seat and the same point on the one in front of you. Before deregulation, the average pitch was about 35 inches, roughly equivalent to today’s domestic business class or “economy plus” upgrades. This past May, reports circulated that American would shrink pitch to 30 inches in most rows; that’s about the norm, but many budget carriers such as Spirit ratchet it down as low as 28 inches. When pitch is less than 30 inches, anyone taller than 5-foot-8 (more than half of American men and about 5 percent of women) is in danger of getting kneecapped by a reclining seat.
This is not a simple matter of tabulating inches. “Clothes that fit don’t exactly match your measurements,” Robinette, the fit expert, explains. Good design reflects the reality of existence, which is that we move. On a pair of Levi’s, the hips are wider than waistlines, not only because hips by and large are wider than waists, but because they flex and turn and sometimes jiggle and dance. Similarly, moving when seated allows us to shift when our joints get stiff or our butts go numb.
The lack of air between chairs pins us in place, but that’s only part of the airplane pinch. Aside from pitch, designers trim the galleys—where we enter and exit the plane, where the drink carts stow, and where attendants nuke tiny sandwiches and hang out. Once they’re out of annexable space there, they can eat into the bathrooms (the “lavs,” in Airline World).
After apologizing profusely to my girthy, aisle-seated companion, I made my way to the lavs. Once inside, I attempted the classic “I’m in a small room” move, reaching out to see if I could touch both walls at once. No luck, but not because the room was so wide: I couldn’t raise my arms beyond my waist. I stretched my tape measure across the widest point: 34 inches. My elbows could tap both walls.
I maneuvered my measurer over to the toilet and found that the “room” was just 23 inches wide across the bowl. Yikes. Many building codes require residential heads to sit in the middle of a 32-inch or wider span. Commercial codes demand 36 inches. But the FAA has no such requirements: Single-aisle planes like the A321 don’t have to have lavs at all, let alone ones to accommodate the disabled. It’s also a bad situation if you’re a bodybuilder or pregnant. (When Andre the Giant flew, attendants handed him a bucket.) Still, a small room is better than none at all.
The fight for comfort is a struggle among manufacturers (“framers,” in aero lingo), airlines, and passengers. “It’s profit first, then comfort. That’s the battle,” says analyst Miller.
The framers push airlines to think creatively about densification schemes, and display their zeal at conventions. Parts manufacturers like Rockwell-Collins and companies like Boeing and Airbus show concepts with stacked chairs, saddles, pitches as narrow as 24 inches, and even bunks in the cargo hold. “Airbus would love nothing more than to add 11 seats in a row. They mocked it up once, and a bunch of us sat in it. It wasn’t good,” Miller recalls.
Vocal and often unionized flight attendants prevent the carriers from buying into any truly aggressive interiors. Attendants oversee evacuations, and some worry that shrunken seats make it difficult for passengers to exit. Pinched travelers can also be harder to manage. “Flight attendants are left to deal with a myriad of challenges,” an American attendants’ union rep wrote me in an email statement, “including increased incidents of air rage that can only get worse as more airplanes are flying at full capacity.”
Market forces may have triggered densification, but passengers share the blame. We want cheap airfare—as every analyst and designer and engineer and attendant I spoke with explained. And we will endure the pinch for the savings. “Do I wish we all had 36 inches of pitch? Of course, but I’m not willing to pay for it,” Miller says, adding, “Most flyers agree: ‘I’ll put my knees to my chin, suffer for three hours, and buy dinner when I get there’ is the logic.”
The few in-flight comforts that remain seek to distract us from our bleak surroundings. Free snacks and TV are calculated moves, and so is the cabin design, explains Roser Roca-Toha of Airbus’ aircraft marketing department. Her team will present a carrier with up to 150 different seating configurations and a slew of aesthetic tweaks, such as cabin colors and mood lighting, to divert discomfort. These user-experience window dressings—first popularized by Virgin America—can be relatively inexpensive for the airlines. Even the pricey things, such as entertainment, are getting cheaper, as carriers replace $10,000-a-pop seatback screens with in-flight Wi-Fi and access to streaming catalogs through flyers’ own tablets and phones. A more densely packed plane can offset the price of these add-ons in a few months.
Diversion is one of the framers’ last cards to play. They’ve pushed the geometry of seating almost as far as our girth will allow it to go. There’s just one thing left to give: the recline. Those few inches, Roca-Toha explains, might slightly improve one person’s situation but will likely downgrade that of whoever’s behind them. If one flyer reclines, the rest of the plane also has to, if only to reclaim the space ceded to the instigator. “A good compromise is a pre-recline—a natural recline that is fixed in place. It’s kinder, and more natural,” Roca-Toha says. Frontier Airlines and Spirit now have stationary, pre-reclined seats, and overseas carriers British Airways, Norwegian, and Ryanair have also opted to do away with leanable chairs.
My fellow passengers and I navigated these tiny spaces while we hurtled above the southwestern Sonoran desert. In this moment, in transit to work or our loved ones, the cabin design forced us in each other’s way. Getting into and out of my row, I’d apologized to my seatmates. A few rows up, another man did the same; “I have terrible news,” he said, announcing himself to his neighbors.
We blame each other, and ourselves, for our discomfort. But we are wrong. “It’s not you,” Robinette says. “Most people are near average size. That’s literally why it’s an average. But people assume it’s them, not the product.” It’s the product. It can be fixed.
Right now, nearly everyone is, to varying degrees, uncomfortable on an airplane. And yet sometimes, we band together and cry out: Enough! The designers do listen. Roca-Toha explains that passenger feedback—from survey cards and online forms—is the most powerful tool framers have in perfecting craft.
I was skeptical, but she’s right. Remember American’s plan to add more seats across its fleet? The scheme would have chopped pitch to 29 inches on the carrier’s new 737s, but attendants and passengers protested, taking to Twitter and Facebook to complain. The company instead cut its extra-legroom option on one row, and spread the space across the economy cabin, holding pitch at 30 inches. An extra inch of wiggle room is a small victory for us, but consider the airline’s sacrifice: the padded profits from thousands of upgraded trips. If we can do that, maybe we can do one better. Wider seats? Roomier rows? Or we can start small: No saddle seats, ever.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 Tiny issue of Popular Science.