If an idea attributed to Airbus in April ever flies, there will be both “seats” and seats in economy class. The European plane maker denies it ever seriously considered standing-room “seats,” but it’s an idea aircraft makers and carriers are unlikely to dismiss out of hand. It represents another way of cramming more passengers into planes, which has become a driving mission since the cost of aviation fuel rose higher than flight paths.
The New York Times broke the story. It described passengers propped against a padded backboard and held in place with a harness in a standing section on planes made by the European manufacturer. The paper has since retracted the report in response to pressure from Airbus. Regardless of whether Airbus floated the idea to potential clients, as reported, the original Times article opened a window on ways airlines are working to get more passengers onto planes.
According to the Times, the airline industry is operating in a cut throat environment with the big carriers trying to fend off the budget carriers and having to deal with soaring fuel costs. The report said seats are getting thinner and closer together, so standing room is the logical next step. It pointed out that train and tube commuters regularly have to stand face-to-face for hours, so the idea of airline passengers doing the same is not so far-fetched.
Striving for “passenger density” and “efficient seating,” carriers have been slipping another row or two of seats into coach by exploiting stronger, lighter materials that allow for slimmer seatbacks. The Times article noted that thinner seats could be used to give passengers more legroom but, in practice, the airlines have been keeping the amount of space between rows the same to accommodate additional rows. The result is an additional six seats on a typical Boeing 737, for a total of 156, and as many as 12 new seats on a Boeing 757, for a total of 200.
“There is clearly pressure on carriers to make the total passenger count as efficient as possible,” said Howard Guy, a director for Design Q, a seating design consultant in England. “After all,” he told the Times, the fewer seats that are put on board, the more expensive the seat price becomes. It’s basic math.”
Alexander Pozzi, the director for research and development at Weber Aircraft, a seat manufacturer in Gainesville, Texas, told the Times his company made the seats thinner but “the airlines keep pitching them closer and closer together.”
There is one bit of good news in the thinner seats for coach class: They offer slightly more room between the armrests because the electronics are being moved to the seatbacks.
One of the first to use the thinner seats in coach was American Airlines, which refitted its economy-class section seven years ago with an early version made by the German manufacturer Recaro, for a program it promoted as “More Room Throughout Coach.” The change added some two inches of legroom, according to the Times article. But two years later, to cut costs, American slid the seats closer together and ended its “More Room” program without fanfare. When the changes were completed last year, American said its “density modification program” had added five more seats to the economy-class section of its MD-80 narrow-body aircraft and brought the total seat count to 120 in the back of the plane.
A recent study cited in Ergonomics Today™ on November 6, 2001, concluded that economy-class air passengers do not have adequate space to assume a correct “brace” position for emergency landing, and the seats themselves can be obstacles to quick emergency evacuation of the cabin.
The research, “Anthropometric Study to Update Minimum Aircraft Seating Standards,” was initiated by the Joint Aviation Authorities with United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority funding. It found that the current minimum spacing and design standards in Britain needed to be expanded by at least 3 inches in terms of seat pitch, or the space between rows of seats, and by as much as 10 inches to more adequately accommodate tall people. The research provides figures that make it clear that today’s practice of packing in passengers is flirting with danger as well as compromising the comfort of passengers.
Many countries, including the United States, have no established standards for seat spacing, so Airbus’ denial about plans for standing room “seats” are meaningless. There may be nothing but conscience to stop carriers around the world from picking up on the idea.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2006-05-24.