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Airbus Chides Airlines on ‘Crusher Seats’

Airbus Chides Airlines on ‘Crusher Seats’

It’s the seat, stupid.

That’s a travel truism for the great majority of flyers traveling in coach.

And it goes hand in hand with another truth of coach travel: It’s never been more uncomfortable than it is today.

In the decades since the 17-inch width was adopted as the de facto industry standard for coach seats, the average adult’s height, weight, and girth have all increased. And the airlines’ average load factors have increased as well, from flying 60 percent full in the 1980s to today, when planes are routinely 80 percent full, or more.

More bodies, and bigger bodies, crammed into the same space. It’s no wonder that the seat-of-the-pants experience of air travel is at all-time lows.

Airbus this week came out with a strongly worded statement chiding the airlines for their continued use of “crusher seats,” and urging the adoption of a new standard width for coach seats of 18 inches. According to Kevin Keniston, Airbus’s Head of Passenger Comfort:

If the aviation industry doesn’t make a stand right now, we risk jeopardizing passenger comfort into 2045 and beyond. Which means that another generation is confined to seats that are based on 1950s standards. We’re encouraging all airlines to look at our research and consider increasing the size of their seats. Because, as the research has shown, one inch makes all the difference.

Airbus’s more-width campaign is based on research into the relationship between seat width and sleep.

The Airbus-sponsored study comparing 17- and 18-inch seats clearly showed that the wider seats were the minimum width required to afford passengers any chance of meaningful sleep during long-haul flights. According to the data, the 18-inch seats improved passengers’ sleep quality by 53 percent.

The Airbus news release also points out that the number of flights of 6,000 or more miles has increased by 70 percent in just the past five years.

Although the focus is sleep, the broader implications are for comfort generally. Bigger bodies need bigger seats. Period.

Of course, seat width is only half the story. The other key variable affecting coach comfort is the distance between the seats: legroom. As with seat width, the current industry standard of 31-32 inches of legroom needs to be critically evaluated and updated.

Since the airlines seem disinclined to take the initiative themselves, perhaps Airbus would be good enough to look into the matter on behalf of cramped coach passengers. Because, unlike the airlines, Airbus sees fit to employ a Head of Passenger Comfort.

Reader Reality Check

Have we reached the tipping point in coach-class discomfort?

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  • Martha15241

    Absolutely agree that legroom is critical for comfort. I am a tall woman,the equivalent of an average sized man. I don’t know how tall men can stand it. I can deal with the heavy set passenger next to me. Most people are pretty aware when they are rubbing elbows with a stranger. But when the person in front reclines an inch and a half and that has them resting against my knees for the duration of a flight . . .that is agonizing.

  • Mike Jacoubowsky

    While I absolutely agree with every single thing Airbus says, one also has to realize that even the tiniest incremental changes in seat width and pitch amount to many millions, perhaps billions of dollars in revenue to Airbus & Boeing. It’s tough for me to look at this and not think it’s motivated more by selfish desire than by compassion for the air traveler.

  • http://richi.co.uk/ Richi Jennings

    If more passengers would buy premium-economy class tickets — Economy+, WT+, and the like — the airlines would get the message. And they’d increase the size of those cabins (or start to offer them, if they don’t already).

    However, if ticket price remains the overriding factor, economy passengers will continue to get what they pay for.

  • roadrunner

    I’m really tired of this argument that people “get what they pay for” and the traveling public is “too cheap” to want any sort of comfort. We’re not really talking about comfort here, are we? Just basic decency. There need to be exact limits set on seat width and pitch, much the same way as there as exact specifications when buildings are constructed, etc.

  • Thomas J. Lipton

    Sounds to me as if Airbus is trying to get themselves off the hook in anticipation of the big jury awards to plaintiffs who suffer injury from DVT or in-flight safety incidents because of the airlines’ relentless hunger to cram in every body they can.

  • James Irving

    I have given up on flying. There is no comfort for the passenger unless he/she is in first class. As long as people are willing to pay for poor seating, poor service, and overall poor conditions then nothing is going to change. When the flights get down to 50% capacity the airlines may do something about it to survive, but when people are flying anyway, why bother?

  • Rob C

    How does buying Economy+, WT+, and the like send the right message to the airline when these seats are the same width as all other coach seats. If you are referring to more legroom, then I understand but this whole article is about seat width. In fact, if I was to purchase an economy+ seat because I though I was getting a larger seat as you are implying, didn’t require extra legroom, and then I sat in the same 17″ seat as everyone else in coach I would be upset. This is the misconception about Economy+ and the like that they offer wider seats. They don’t! They only offer more legroom and typically taller passengers are the individuals who complain about legroom.

    So please don’t encourage passengers to pay extra for more legroom so airlines can increase the number of seats in this particular product offering when that does absolutely nothing about seat width. In fact, the way that airlines have been able to offer Economy+ and the like is by decreasing the pitch (amount of legroom) between seats in regular coach. Thus, it would seem the only way airlines would start offering more seats at 18″ instead of 17″ is if they then decreased the size of seats throughout the remaining coach cabin. However, I am not sure that seats smaller than 17″ would work for the remainder of coach.

  • http://richi.co.uk/ Richi Jennings

    My posit was that different airlines call it different things. Yes, “Economy+” was the wrong example to use. However, other premium-economy-style products do have wider seats, including BA’s “World Traveller Plus”, Alitalia’s “Plus Classica” and the PE products from VAA, Quantas, Air Canada, and others.

  • Mordock

    Legroom equates to the number of rows of seats and thus the revenue of the flight. 1 inch more legroom means 1 less row of seats.

    On the other hand, there is no way to make the seats wider as the plane is only so wide. To make 6 seats across an inch wider means making the cabin 6 inches wider. i.e. replacing the airplane with a wider body jet. What Airbus is saying is to replace the fleet with their new wider body jets (from guess who?). Kind of self serving.

    So, bottom line, the research is suspect. It needs to be confirmed from independent sources. Not that I really doubt it much. It really won’t make much difference for me (I’m not that big), except for that big guy sitting next to me, eating into my space. :-(

  • Mordock

    But what is the choice, take a bus? I would be curious to know how many people pay for first class anyway. I would hazard to guess that most of those people sitting up there are frequent flier upgrades.

  • doug18

    Hi Mike
    how exactly does it mean billions in revenue?

  • Mike Jacoubowsky

    If you shrink the number of passengers you can carry by, say, 2% (so you can have wider seats, and the number is likely a greater percentage than that), then you have to buy 2% more planes to have the same capacity. Planes are expensive. That’s a lot of extra revenue to Airbus. Or Boeing.

  • doug18

    seems to me like a far reaching scenario…
    first, not sure that in order to increase by one inch you need to reduce capacity..there must be an intelligent design way to increase the width without compromising seat numbers
    but even if argument A is valid, then doesn’t mean airlines will buy more planes to compensate that…if we go by theories, then since airlines are not averaging 100 occupancy then 98% capacity should fulfill the demand right?
    hopefully the airlines will listen though…

  • Mike Jacoubowsky

    Doug: Given the extent to which airlines are going presently, to pack extra seats into planes, this is not a hypothetical situation. It’s real, and it’s going on every day. Even Southwest is reducing pitch to add seats. Now that’s pitch, not width. The width issue comes up primarily on wide body planes like 777 and 787s, where the manufacturers have recommended 8 or possibly 9 across, and the airlines are going as high as 10. Adding an extra row to a long plane results in quite a bit of extra revenue/flight. And yes, it does reduce the demand for more planes as well.

    One other interesting wrinkle. The 737, which is suddenly gaining in popularity again, can’t fit 18″ width seats. The competing Airbus 320 can. That’s possibly why Airbus is making this argument and not Boeing. :-)