Ask the pilot

The bone-bending, ergonomic hell of economy class. Six easy ideas for making flying more comfortable.

By Patrick Smith

Published April 18, 2008 10:32AM (EDT)

I know, you're expecting a blockbuster column on the Delta-Northwest merger, announced on Monday. If the merger is approved, what will the repercussions be? Will fares be climbing? Will employees be thrown out of work? Will opposition by pilots drag things into prolonged litigation? Are additional mergers in the cards? The answers are maybe, maybe, maybe and maybe. I covered most of this in a column that ran on Feb. 15. A merger announcement was imminent at the time, only to be put on a two-month hold by complications over how to integrate pilot seniority lists. If all goes as planned, Northwest Airlines, the nation's oldest carrier, will be absorbed into Delta. But that seniority issue is not yet resolved, so hang tight.

A runner-up column idea would be Tuesday's crash of a Hewa-Bora Airways DC-9 in Goma, Congo. Early reports say an engine problem during the takeoff roll, followed by a tire failure, resulted in the runway overrun that killed 40 people. There have been several runway overruns in recent years, and the crash also raises the specter of tire-related disasters, detailed in this space in 2005. Just be wary of what you read: The Associated Press coverage of the accident has been dreadful, spattered with ridiculous quotes and bizarre descriptions.

But let's talk about something different and a bit more fun. Let's talk about seats.

Last month, while those talks with Northwest were limping along, Delta Air Lines made an interesting announcement. Beginning in 2010, it will begin retrofitting its Boeing 777 and 767 economy classes with something called Cozy Suite, a new-concept seat developed by Thompson Solutions, a cabin-design firm based in Northern Ireland. Delta, the global launch customer, will reportedly maintain exclusive North American rights for a limited time.

As seen here, Cozy Suite's contoured seat backs provide each passenger with a partial shell enclosure, described by Thompson as a "fixed cocoon, " providing greatly improved comfort and privacy. The recline mechanism adjusts forward and downward, meaning the seat back itself does not tip into the next passenger's space. There's a footrest, lumbar cushion and optional wide-screen personal video. Average legroom is increased by a minimum of 2 inches, and alignment is staggered horizontally, allowing easy access to the aisle even from a window seat. Not to mention it's an elegant, sleek-looking product.

For Delta, part of the appeal is the chance to increase the capacity of its 767-300s by about 30 passengers, while simultaneously upgrading comfort. The bread-and-butter aircraft of Delta's long-haul fleet, the 767 is older and smaller than the 777s, A330s and A340s used by many of its competitors. Cozy Suite instantly makes these aircraft more competitive, providing greater comfort and amenities while simultaneously increasing revenue.

It remains to be seen how the merger might affect things, and it's a year and a half before implementation is set to begin. But I'll put myself out on a limb: Delta's decision to move forward with this concept is one of the most exciting developments in long-haul air travel in the past several years. Among U.S. carriers especially, it's an extremely impressive step. To understand what makes it so, we need to acknowledge the bone-bending, ergonomic hell that is the typical economy-class chair.

I don't know about you, but each time I settle into one of those blasted seats, the first thing I wonder is what malformed extraterrestrial creature it could possibly have been designed for. Clearly it was not intended for a human being. "Settling in" is, of course, the wrong term; you don't attempt to relax so much as balance yourself in place. The pressure points are all wrong, your legs are unsupported, there's no place for your arms, and lumbar support is nil. You call this sitting? Insult to injury, the conventional seats lack even the most basic and practical accouterments; the tray tables, the armrests, the seat pockets -- everything is the wrong shape and in the wrong place.

It's irritating, because flying could be made a lot more comfortable through modest improvements in basic design.

Short of a radical, Thompson-style renovation, the most obvious way for an airline to make economy class more pleasant would be to install fewer seats in the first place, either by reducing the number across, or by increasing the space between rows. Unfortunately, the economics of economy, so to speak, make this a nonstarter. Profit margins on coach fares are somewhere between nonexistent and tiny. Maximizing revenue requires carrying as many passengers as possible. Cramped quarters, in other words, are unavoidable. Besides, a wider seat isn't necessarily more comfortable than a skinnier one. It isn't a size issue, it's a shape and support issue. Engineers are also faced with the challenge of designing a frame that is both lightweight and extremely strong, able to withstand several times the force of gravity.

But while the requisites of profit, weight and crash resistance impose certain limitations, there's no excuse for the poorly designed seats we've grown accustomed to. Through the use of some high-strength, high-tech materials and a bit of imagination, a chair can be safe, lightweight, sturdy and comfortable all at once.

When carriers offer improvements, the focus, all too often, is on legroom. The various souped-up economy cabins out there -- marketed as Economy Plus, Premium Economy, etc. -- emphasize legroom as their biggest selling point. I can't speak for everybody -- I'm under 6 feet tall -- but among the least of my concerns is the lack of space for my legs. A bigger issue is the inability to lift my legs.

Not every airline has the resources to follow Delta's lead, which in some respects is above and beyond what it needs to be. There are plenty of less radical fixes that would go a long way. In addition to a design that actually conforms to the shape of a human body -- hardly an extreme or financially crippling notion -- here are some recommendations.

1. An adjustable footrest. The chance to periodically raise one's legs makes even short flights considerably more bearable.

2. A tray table that adjusts to reach the body, so a passenger doesn't need to hunch over to eat or work. Ideally, the tray should have a curved leading edge to better fit around your torso. We're all shaped differently, but a slight indentation would be suitable for virtually anyone. Said tray should be the sort that unfolds from the armrest, not from the seat in front. This solves the hunch-over problem, and avoids the hazard of laptop crushing, which happens when the person in front of you suddenly reclines, pinching your screen between the table and the upper cushion. It also allows better access to the seat pocket. With traditional tables, items in the pocket have a habit of becoming trapped beneath the bottom edge of the tray. Lastly, it frees up space for the next item.

3. On-demand, in-seat video with decent viewing options and a personal screen of at least 9 inches. In a lot of ways, keeping passengers happy is all about the art of distraction, and nothing kills time like the chance to watch a movie. (The same goes for a decent selection of magazines. What ever happened to the in-flight libraries that airlines used to stock?) In fairness to carriers, personal video units are expensive and heavy, making them a difficult retrofit on some older-model aircraft.

4. An adjustable headrest. Not the flimsy, half-assed kind found on some planes, but one that fits more snugly, holding your head in place and allowing you to sleep.

5. A personal reading light. No, not the ceiling mounted kind, but one of the movable, shoulder-mounted lamps normally found in first or business class.

6. A fold-out, ring-style cup holder. Helps prevents spills.

Those of you who do a lot of traveling outside the United States know that some carriers indeed have installed a few, or even most, of the suggested features above. The Emirates 777 I rode not so long ago had what was possibly the most comfortable economy section I've ever experienced, despite the airline's cramming 10-abreast seating into a plane built for nine. It wasn't the chair itself, it was the personal space. Several other overseas carriers have experimented with innovative, ergonomically friendly seat designs. Prior to Delta's stepping forward, there were few if any similar efforts from U.S. carriers.

On the whole, airlines have a way of missing the point when they try to improve onboard customer service. Often enough it's the simplest, most basic (and, truth be told, affordable) gesture that makes the biggest difference -- something as simple as handing out larger bottles of water instead of tiny, 3-ounce containers. So how about it -- a list of common-sense fixes that would help make air travel more tolerable? I'm feeling lazy, so why don't you, the reader, send in your recommendations, and I'll publish the best of them in an upcoming column. I have a few ideas of my own; let's see if they match.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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