The mystery (and misery) of the shrinking airline seat

There are concerns about the size of airline seats. Photo: Thinkstock

Earl Diamond is still shaking his head at the stuff he saw at this year’s Airline Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany.

“You always see the ludicrous there,” says the CEO of Avianor – a Mirabel, Quebec-based aircraft maintenance and component manufacturing company.

This year, the Rebel seat helped fill the “ludicrous” quota.

Resembling the chairs in one of those sit-in fighter jet games you’d see at the movie theater, Rebel’s take on the future of airline seating is black and white, firm looking, with gold arm rests, seatbelts and a stylized “R” by the headrest. Much like movie theater seats, they snap up when your weight isn’t on them. The idea is that you can stand or sit; dependent on how you want to occupy your small bit of airline real estate.

“What cracked me up was the name – it not only describes their attitude of coming up with rebellious idea like having stand-up seats,” says Diamond, chuckling. “But it also describes what the passengers are going to do when they get on that plane, they will rebel.”

The Rebel seats come at a pre-reclined angle of 17 degrees but the key is the pitch – the distance between your seat and the one in front. While WestJets Boeing 737s have a pitch of 31 to 33 inches, Air Canada’s Boeing 767-300ER, boasts 34 inches and the same plane flying Air Canada’s leisure-geared Rouge banner has a pitch of 30 inches, the Rebel offers a diminutive 28-inch pitch.

According to the designer, a 28-inch pitch on the Rebel should “feel more like 30 to 31 inches.”

This is what the future “feels” like.

But the reality of shrinking seat space and the discomforts it creates for passengers has caught the eye of the U.S. Department of Transportation who recently sat down with a panel of experts to chat about the potential dangers of cramming passengers into tighter seats.

“There are rules for how many people you can put on an airplane based around getting people off the plane in 90 seconds in an emergency – that’s the benchmark which determines your criteria, the number of doors on the aircraft, the number of exits,” says Diamond.

While crafty aero-engineers have made planes stronger, better, faster, there’s only so many efficiency upgrades you can make to boost profits before you start to look at the interior.

“I think what it boils down to is you want to lower your costs the only way you’re going to do it now is by squeezing more seats into a plane,” says Fred Lazar, an aviation analyst and professor at the Schulich School of Business. “That’s the ultra low cost carrier model.”

But to make sense of the future, you’ve got to understand the past.

The Golden Age

In the beginning, the world reclined. Or rather, a couple hundred bodies packed like sardines in a metal tube with wings, reclined. Sure, these bodies were random-formed constructs, some with wide shoulders and stubby legs, others gangly and tall – it’s clear whoever was in charge of designing these creatures threw aside the confines of symmetry years ago – but they fit, and they reclined their way across borders, mountains and oceans.

More importantly, they did it with more space.

But Diamond cautions against comparing the past with the present.

“If you go way back, air travel was for the rich and privileged,” he says adding that even if you were treated like a soaring god, it still took a week to fly across the country.

The 60s and 70s, says Lazar, were the golden days, when the airline industry and fares was regulated, driving airlines to compete on amenities – how wide the seats were, how much space you had.

“Load factors were running in the high 60s low 70 percentiles so there’s all these empty seats on the plane,” he says.

Between 1960 and 1964 Trans-Canada Airlines (renamed Air Canada in 1965), shuttled passengers around in the 108-seat Vickers Vanguard, which boasted a 39-inch pitch dependent on the configuration and the 176-seater Douglas DC-8-40, which had a 34-inch pitch.

Post-deregulation hangover blues

When did it all start to fall apart? Lazar points to deregulation through the National Transportation Act in 1987.

“It was a race to the bottom in terms of cost and prices,” says Lazar. “Airlines started changing their route networks, creating their fortress hubs, trying to reduce their cost structure.”

But that race to the bottom hadn’t quite turned to the shrinking seat trend.

Robert Kokonis, president and managing director Toronto-based airline consultants AirTrav, says it wasn’t until after Canada crawled out of bankruptcy in 2004 that Canadian airlines started to cozy up with the idea of adjusting their model around seats.

“Air Canada was one of the first network carriers to have this a la cart pricing,” he says. The idea was that passengers could lower their fare based on their needs; if a passenger didn’t want to pick their seat or wasn’t interested in bringing more than one piece of luggage, they’d pay less.

He points out that unlike the U.S. or Europe where ultra low cost carriers have proliferated, Canada’s small stable of airlines didn’t really start squeezing seats in until a decade ago.

“The majority of Canadian passengers haven’t really had that tight of a seat situation,” says Kokonis. “WestJet and Air Canada have been generally okay and Air Transat is a little bit tighter but not so bad.”

The New Reality

In July 2013, Air Canada launched its Rouge fleet with two Airbus A319s and two Boeing 767s.

“They put in 25 per cent more seats on those planes and lo and behold the cost structure of Rouge is 25 to 30 percent lower than Air Canada,” says Lazar adding that they realized they could employ a similar model with their mainline. “So their new 777s have gone from 350 or 360 seats to about 480.”

But the “high density” 777s of Rouge and their, er… snugger, seats didn’t go unnoticed.

“When people were getting on Rouge’s flights they were noticing seats were tighter and going ‘hey, what’s going on here?” says Kokonis. “But this was going on across the world for year’s now.”

Despite complaints, passengers still seem to endure in favour of the lower airfares of some of these passenger-dense flights.

“It’s not that the airlines are sadistic people – go back 20 years, a flight from New York to Los Angeles probably costs the same dollar number as it does today,” says Diamond. “People are getting a way better deal now, the cost of air travel is negative with inflation.”

Sure, the dwindling pitch size is following suit but if the consumers want to see prices continue to fall, it may be a necessary compromise he says.

“It does stimulate the demand for premium classes where you get a few more inches of pitch,” he says. “Hey, I’m a big guy, six foot something and on the heavy side, give me 35 inches on a five hour flight – I’ll pay $25 bucks for that.”

Standing Room Only Future

Lazar doesn’t see the race to the bottom ending anytime soon.

“If you look at Boeing and Airbus’ new planes, they’re looking to put in at least 20 per cent more seats then the models they’re replacing,” says Lazar. The seats will be narrower, about an inch or two less leg space between seats and they’ll probably eliminate the galley meaning less food preparation on board.

And it’ll go farther still.

“By the end of this decade, compared to what we have now, they’ll be an inch less of space side to side and probably overall about two inches less leg space then the current generation of aircraft,” he says.

The new seats – much like the Rebel – will be fixed and ridged. The space in front will also shrink.

But there are a few elements the shrink-ray blasted airlines of the future will have to deal with. The first will be overhead space to store the carry-on for the boosted passenger numbers.

“That’s going to lead to more challenges unless you start enforcing carry on rules,” says Lazar.

The second is a combination of Canada’s aging population and increasing obesity.

“With the obese – what do you do with them? Charging for an extra seat will set up human rights cases,” he says hinting at wider medical concerns. “Once you start cramming the long haul flights, it’s only a matter of time until someone dies from blood clots and some lawyer will attribute it to the lack of space on a plane launching a class action lawsuit.”

But maybe there is a bottom after all.

“Eventually there’s a limit to how many seats you can put in these planes – you can’t eliminate the space between the seats because people aren’t going to be able to get in and you can’t make them much more narrow because people wont fit,” he says. “So are we reaching the limit for this in the new generation of planes? I think yes. What’s the next possibility? Standing room.”

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