How to make economy class more comfortable

Installing fewer seats is a nonstarter, but there's no excuse for the poorly designed chairs in place now

Published September 15, 2010 4:01PM (EDT)

Everybody is asking me what I think of the proposed new "SkyRider" saddle-style airplane seats. This odd new design has been written up in Popular Science, USA Today and several other publications over the past week or so.

The seat is made by the Italian company Aviointeriors. It features an arched cushion, similar in shape to a horse saddle, that supports the passenger in a semi-standing position, with his or her lap angled downward.

It's innovative, I'll give them that, but it looks even less comfortable than the ergonomic hell that is the typical economy-class seat. Aviointeriors insists otherwise. The SkyRider, they say, thanks to its lower-body support, is actually more comfortable than what we're used to.


Comfort, though, isn't the whole idea. The SkyRider's smaller footprint allows rows to be spaced up to 7 inches closer together. The average 30 inches of "pitch," as it is called (the distance from any point on a seat to the identical point on the seat behind it), could shrink to as little as 23 inches. Airlines, the thinking goes, will jump on this as a means of cramming in more passengers.

This might be true, but only to a certain and pretty limited point.

Airlines cannot simply jam in as many seats as they want. Commercial planes are certified for a maximum occupancy based on, among other things, the number of emergency exits. Most planes are pretty close to this limit as it stands. These regulations are non-negotiable, and thanks to structural and pressurization concerns you cannot simply cut new exits into the fuselage to account for more rows.

So mostly these proposed seating schemes are just a novelty. They might allow for a few extra passengers, but not many.

Despite what most people seem to think, the average economy cabin has hardly changed over the past three decades or so in terms of passenger density. In fact, on the whole, today's economy cabins are slightly more spacious than those of 20 or 30 years ago. A six-abreast cabin, like those on the A320 or 757, is a few inches wider than the six-abreast 727s of old. (Yes, some carriers tinkered with five-across seating back in the day, but these schemes were unusual and short-lived.)

Anybody who flew the old PeopleExpress remembers how bad it could be.

Or Laker Airways, whose low-fare "SkyTrain" service operated between the U.S. and London in the 1970s. Sir Freddie Laker, the airline's flamboyant founder, configured his DC-10s with a bone-crushing 345 seats -- about a hundred more than average (yeah, the DC-10 had eight full-size exit doors that made this legally possible).

I don't know if saddle seats are the answer, but there is plenty of room for improvement in the average economy-class chair. Each time I settle in to one of those things I silently wonder what malformed extraterrestrial it was apparently designed for.

Er, "settle in" is such the wrong term. The pressure points are all wrong, your legs are unsupported, there's no place for your arms, and lumbar support is nonexistent. The tray tables, the armrests, the seat pockets -- everything is the wrong shape and in the wrong position. It's irritating, because things could be a lot more comfortable through some modest improvements.

The most obvious way to make economy class more pleasant would be to install fewer seats, but this a nonstarter. Profit margins on coach fares are somewhere between tiny and nonexistent, and just breaking even requires that almost every seat be occupied. Cramped quarters, in other words, are unavoidable. Engineers are also faced with the challenge of designing a frame that is lightweight and extremely strong, able to withstand several times the force of gravity.

Nevertheless, while the requisites of profit, weight and crash resistance impose limitations, there's no excuse for the poorly designed seats we've grown accustomed to. Through the use of some high-tech materials and a bit of imagination, a chair can be safe, lightweight, sturdy and comfortable all at once. Sleek, ergonomically sculpted seats from innovative manufacturers like Recaro and Thompson Solutions have been on the market for years.

If only more carriers would buy them.

In addition to a shape that actually conforms to that of a human body -- hardly a radical or financially crippling notion -- below are some recommendations. (I first proposed these in a column a couple of years ago, but here they are again since suddenly everybody is talking about seats.) Those of you who do a lot of traveling outside the United States will recognize that many of these features already are found aboard the better Asian, European and Latin American airlines.

1. A wider and adjustable armrest -- one that can actually be shared by two people sitting side-by-side. Really, how difficult can that be?

2. Lumbar support. Existing seats lack any kind of lower back support. They have only a gaping hole into which your lower back sinks, dragging down the rest of your body.

3. A tray table that extends 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 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 caused when the person in front of you suddenly reclines, pinching your screen between the table and the upper cushion.

4. An adjustable footrest. The chance to periodically raise one's legs makes even short flights considerably more bearable. 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 a bigger issue is the inability to periodically lift my legs.

5. On-demand, in-seat video with a personal screen of at least 9 inches. Keeping passengers happy is all about the art of distraction, and the chance to watch a movie or TV is an ideal time-killer. (The same goes for a decent selection of magazines. What ever happened to the in-flight libraries that airlines used to stock?)

6. 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.

7. A fold-out, ring-style cup holder. Helps prevents spills and frees up space on your tray table.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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