From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Ergonomics and Airplane Seating

I came across this article, How to find the most comfortable airline seat, and it reminded me of the recent story of actor-director Kevin Smith being asked to leave a Southwest Airlines flight because of his body size. It also reminded me of an article I wrote back in 2002 that mentioned Southwest’s seating policy (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. Read the full article …

At the time, the airline industry was feeling the after-effects of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. Their industry has been challenged ever since, with the current economic decline severely impacting their bottom lines. And, excuse the pun, but American bottoms have continued to grow in the mean time, making events like Kevin Smith’s more common.

From an ergonomics perspective, this is a classic battle between engineering controls and administrative controls, but rather than being played out within the company, it plays out at the passenger level — the customer.

Engineering controls could be applied to airplane seating design and layout. For example, different seat designs and layout configurations could be developed that recognize and accommodate passenger anthropometric variations (differences in body sizes). However, such designs and layouts could result in higher up-front capital costs, and fewer available seats, which could in turn impact the airline’s current pricing models. In short, would you, the customer, be willing to pay more money for more comfort? Most airlines are banking that you’ll answer "no."

So, they’ll likely continue to apply administrative controls to the problem of passenger comfort, and one of the few options they have is to request or require obese or larger sized people to purchase two seats, or upgrade to first class, where more space is available at a premium price, if or when available at all (Southwest does not offer a first class option). Like all administrative approaches, it’s inherently less effective at improving overall passenger comfort. The obvious problem: who is "too big," and is there a fair, repeatable, reliable way to make that decision? Here’s an excerpt from Southwest’s "Customer of Size Q&A" page:

What is the definitive gauge for a Customer of size?
The armrest is the definitive gauge for a Customer of size. It serves as the boundary between seats and measures 17 inches in width. Customers who are unable to lower both armrests and/or who compromise any portion of adjacent seating should proactively book the number of seats needed prior to travel.

There is much more information on their page describing the nuances surrounding this question, but the end result is that this is a subjective decision involving both the passenger, and sometimes surrounding passengers, and the airline.

Incidentally, after publishing my commentary in 2002, I was interviewed a few times by journalists writing on the topic (e.g., Seeking a perfect 10A, B or C, Forget Legroom. Our Backs Are Killing Us.). After reading something I wrote or stated, I received a call from a design engineer at Boeing. We talked about the challenges of airline seating comfort, seating width in particular. I asked if Boeing had increased the width of the plane body in the design of the new Dreamliner, reasoning that this was the only long term design option to accommodate wider people in traditional forward facing seating layouts used by most airlines. His answer was "no."

So, unless/until airlines seriously consider design options to accommodate larger individuals and growing populations, we can expect more of the same when it comes to passenger comfort.

Here’s a challenge to ergonomists: Can anyone propose a seating design or layout that would protect airlines’ desire to maximize passenger capacity and their economic bottom line while improving passenger comfort? Not easy, but I’m betting it can be done, and would welcome the challenge if any airline would like to pursue it.

And by the way, even though Southwest Airlines is the primary example in this article and the Kevin Smith "Fatgate" debate, as some have called it, this is an industry-wide problem, not just a problem for Southwest.

Over the years we’ve written quite a few articles about airline seating, including topics beyond simple comfort, such as Deep Vein Thrombosis, so feel free to dig deeper into this topic.