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Jul 17, 2014

Think plane seats are uncomfortable now? Just you wait …

If Airbus and Boeing have their way, the merely uncomfortable and irritating act of air travel is about to become downright torturous, with stand-up or "crotch crusher" "seats" mooted for planes.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

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.

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10 thoughts on “Think plane seats are uncomfortable now? Just you wait …

  1. zut alors

    Obviously nobody has mentioned to the accountants that Western butts have spread in the last decade & continue to widen – hence a significant number of potential flyers may not be able to physically fit into the new accountant-approved size seats.

  2. klewso

    Why don’t they just hang us upside down from hooks – they could collect the money that falls from our pockets too?

    That leg room is bad enough now – speaking from 188cms of experience.

  3. Yclept

    Looks like overseas jaunts are off the agenda. The domestic holiday market will thank them.

  4. MJPC

    From the look of it it’s not only space it’s also weight; all those heavy seats gone to save on fuel being used.
    Maybe they can have the passengers pedalling (like a bicycle) and put some propellers at the back to help the plane to go faster?

  5. Robert Johnson

    In yesterday’s ‘i’ newspaper, which I grabbed whilst boarding at Heathrow, this report was accompanied by a brief reference to last month’s report that Etihad’s A380s would include three-roomed suites staffed by a butler and chef. Maybe the airline industry is trying to show that it is responsive, in its own weird way, to maintaining some sort of average standard for customers ‘enjoying’ widening inequality.

  6. David Hand


    I’ll say it again just in case you missed it.


    For those who need it explained.

    Airline A offers a nice roomy comfortable seat with nice food and an attentive host/hostie and Airline B offers these seats at half the price.

    Airline A goes out of business.

  7. The Old Bill

    Or Airline Q tries cutting down on service and runs Airline J as a direct competitor with no service.

    Result? Airline E, with attentive cabin crew, (who wear high heels and mysteriously never grow old,) gets given half of Airline Q’s long haul routes because people still like comfort.

    It’s just a shame I can’t morally justify supporting Airline E, but Airlines S, BA, M and others still do a good full service job via Asia, with only a small chance of going off course.

    Don’t think it’s just price as David suggests.

  8. Gavin Moodie

    I have often wondered why planes don’t have for short flights those benches that one half sits on half lean against in crowded trains. I would miss the music, not that the selection is very good on domestic flights.

  9. Salamander

    If the passengers pedalled it could help prevent DVT (deep vein thrombosis). A win-win all round.

  10. PDGFD1

    Hmm… don’t like anybody’s chances of avoiding major injury in the event of a rough landing… or worse, an accident.