If you think your plane seats are much tighter on your domestic flights than they used to be, you’re right. But if Airbus and Boeing have their way, there is much worse to come.
After Boeing earlier this week revealed its 200-seat arrangements for a model of the widely used 737 that seldom featured more than 156 seats 10 years ago, diagrams from an Airbus US patent application for “crotch crusher” fold-down bike-type seats have been circulated.
What is going on? The short answer is that Boeing and Airbus make sales these days on metrics that seek to show they have the lowest operating costs per seat per unit of distance flown.
This means that dividing the fixed costs of flying an airliner of any size and range capability by the highest possible number of seats produces the lowest figures on that per seat basis for fuel burn (and emissions) as well as maintenance, labour, navigation and airport fees.
The old-fashioned days of selling jets on claims that they have bigger, more comfortable seats and a more pleasant ride have gone the way of widespread use of premium fares by managed business accounts that increasingly forbid such extravagance.
Airbus and Boeing have worked out that accountants drive airline choices of airliners, not flyers.
It’s all about cram and cut, and having cut the space between seat rows about as much as is physically possible, the new territory for savings is seen as revising the concept of a seat into a station on which a passenger might perch, perchance painfully, and liberate cabin space for a body count previously unimaginable in a frequent flyer’s worst nightmare.
Some examples. Since the turn of the century, not only has the Boeing 737-800 widely flown in this country been upped to a current 189 seats from 156, the slightly smaller Airbus A320, which used to fly with as few as 132 seats, is widely used at 180 seats current and 189 under a new revised plan.
On long-haul routes the A330-300, which used to be flown with between 272 and 310 seats, is today being flown with 436 seats. The Boeing 777-300ERs that came into service with as few as 278 seats can be used in all economy format with 540 seats.
The only jet that hasn’t been so afflicted yet is the largest one in service, the A380, where most airlines using it opt for between 450-525 seats because the market experience is that there are few routes where they are going to find the extra passengers to fill its potential count of as high as 840 seats in what would continue to be comparatively wide economy seats.
However, there remains some glimmers of hope that torture devices like fold-down bike seats or vertical pillars onto which passengers stand up belted into a safe position with leg restraints might not eventuate.
No matter how many extra passengers such devices could take, the need to provide all of them with an emergency oxygen supply would require a major and costly redesign of ceiling-mounted system and associated displacement of other electrical and cabin pressurization ducts and pipes.
New doors would have to be installed to meet the international emergency evacuation standard of getting a full load of passengers out of a burning or broken jet in 90 seconds with only half the available exits working.
But the passion to cram more “passenger positions” into jets seems unabated. It will only come to an end when the situation becomes so intolerable that passengers revolt and increasingly refuse to fly.
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.