From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Commentary: Airline Seating — One Size Does Not Fit All

One size does not fit all. That’s possibly the most important principle in the science and application of ergonomics. But, when Southwest Airlines acknowledged this fact by announcing it would enforce a policy requiring some larger individuals to purchase an additional seat, they were widely criticized. Is the criticism fair? Maybe, or maybe not, depending upon your perspective.

One thing is for sure, though. Anyone who has been a passenger on an airplane, and not necessarily a Southwest Airlines plane, but just about any commercial carrier, can probably attest to being uncomfortable in their seat, due either to their own size, or the size of neighboring passengers.

The Southwest story reminded us of a commentary we published over a year ago, written while the author was in one of those uncomfortable seats, which we’ve reprinted, below.

The larger issue of obesity has been receiving lots of news coverage lately. Though you probably won’t hear popular media sources make the distinction, they are reporting on ergonomics – people sizes – anthropometry. Are people getting larger – taller – fatter? If they are, what are the implications for design? Not just seating design, but workplace design, consumer products, etc.? This important topic will be explored in detail in the July 2002 issue of The Ergonomics Report™.

[The following article is reprinted. It originally appeared in Ergonomics Today™ on March 23, 2001.]

Commentary: Airline Seating, Politics, and Getting Back to Business
March 23, 2001

I’m sitting on an airplane, beginning a long week of business travel across the United States. Over the next month, I’ll log over 13,000 air miles, spending time in 4 different countries on 2 continents. And rather than excitement at my great fortune to be able to travel such distances and visit interesting people and places along the way, I instead feel a sense of impending dread.

Why? Ergonomics, of course. The ergonomics of airplane seats, or the lack thereof, to be exact.

It could be worse, I tell myself. I’m sitting next to Chris Watts, a 6 foot, 6 inch basketball player for Carroll College, in Helena, Montana, U.S.A. He’s definitely in a worse position than I am. He had to change seats because his legs are too long to fit in the seat he was originally assigned. Sitting next to each other now, thankfully at a "bulkhead" that affords us a few extra inches of leg room, we squirm awkwardly as we position ourselves, each of us trying to be considerate of the other’s space. Chris leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees while I enjoy a moment of comfort. I regret that I can’t reciprocate his generosity, as my laptop precludes me from doing the same.

Measuring in at 5 feet 8 inches, which is about 50th percentile when combining male and female heights, I’m not a tall person by current American standards. I do, however, have wide shoulders (about 95th percentile). That is, like many people, my height is not necessarily a good predictor of my other body dimensions. I might be 50th percentile in height, but that doesn’t mean I’m 50th percentile in shoulder width.

So, for the next 150 minutes, Chris and I will sit uncomfortably, jockeying for position, muscles tense, joints tight, and nerves on edge. No offense intended, Chris, but on my next flight I hope I won’t see another person your size sit next to me. And I’m sure whoever ends up next to me next time will feel the same about me, because it hardly matters what size you are – the airplane seats are likely to be too close for comfort.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Neither of us will be too much worse for this temporary wear. It’s unlikely that either of us will develop a cumulative trauma disorder from this one experience. But, Chris has a big playoff game tomorrow, and I have an important presentation, then more miles to fly. Will he be in his best form, or will he have a kink in his back? Neither of us will file a workers’ compensation claim, and both of us will forget this episode in due time. But both of us, I can assure you, will curse the airline, wondering why they have so blatantly mismatched our bodies with this technology. And that’s just one aspect of the bottom-line interest businesses must recognize in ergonomics.

Two weeks ago, my colleague and I flew from Denver, Colorado, to Salt Lake City, Utah. I’m confident we paid some of the highest fares of anyone on the flight, yet we ended up in the very last row. Being in the last row is not necessarily a bad thing, except for the fact that on this plane, the last row has significantly less space than all other rows, and the seat does not recline. Fortunately, it was a relatively short flight, because when the passenger in front of me reclined his seat, I could almost see the whites of his eyes.

Is this any way to treat a customer, especially a customer that has paid a premium price? Is this a good business practice?

Ergonomics is so much more than a workplace issue. It’s much more than a political fight that pits organized labor against organized business. It’s really about matching people and technology, whether in the workplace, the home, our recreational activities, or this pathetically implemented airplane seating.

The recent overturning of the OSHA Ergonomics Program Standard is really a blessing in disguise. It will force ergonomists to re-evaluate what we do, and why we do it. Those of us who live and breath ergonomics know it’s as much a philosophy as it is a vocation. We strive to make life better: more productive; more efficient; higher quality; lower cost; and yes, safer. For people in general, this is obviously a good thing. For business, applying ergonomics is profitable (and in case you’ve missed it, the stock market is reminding us that the health of a business is very much about profits).

The political extremes in the ergonomics debate will reach the failed ends their arguments inevitably invite, and those who understand all that ergonomics is will persevere in achieving success for people, whether those people are shareholders, managers, workers, consumers, or the poor airline employee that has to deal with my complaints.

Ergonomics is a win-win opportunity, and it’s time we put an end to the silly politics and get back to productive work. Ergonomics is good business, and good businesses know that.

This article was last modified on February 3, 2010