Fighting Over the Width of Airline Seats

(Photo: sbamueller)

(Photo: sbamueller)

From Reuters:

Airbus this week called for an industry standard that would provide for a seat at least 18 inches wide in economy cabins, but its U.S. arch-rival Boeing says it should be for airlines to decide.

As you can imagine, there is a lot of money at stake here:

Boeing says its revamped “777X” will hold 406 people based on economy seats over 17 inches wide and set out 10 in each row.

Airbus says the competing version of its A350 will carry 350 people in 18-inch-wide economy seat laid out 9 abreast.

But it’s more than a battle between two companies. It’s a battle between the past and the present:

Between the early 1970s, when the Boeing 747 jumbo defined modern long-haul travel, and the turn of the century, the weight of the average American 40- to 49-year-old male increased by 10 percent, according to U.S. Health Department Data.

The waist of the average 21st-century American male is 39.7 inches, according to U.S. health statistics, which equates to a diameter of 12.6 inches. This leaves 2 inches either side in many plane seats, which are narrower than at an average cinema.

Airbus says that is not enough for long-haul travel and says its rival is sticking to a seat concept from the 1950s, when the average girth of the newly christened ‘jet set’ was narrower.

Airbus says it has commissioned research suggesting an extra inch in seat width improves sleep quality by 53 percent.

What would happen if every seat were adjustable and could then be priced per inch (or, even better, per pound)?


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  1. Maria says:

    I say let the markets decide. People will shop for what works best for them.

    My husband and I are both overweight, and I always book on planes based on the seating configuration. We only book where we can get a plane with 2 seats in the row since I like the window and he likes the aisle. We don’t book on planes with 3 to a row in consideration for the poor soul that would get stuck between 2 large adults. On smaller planes we even sit in front and behind each other where there is only one seat to a row like American Eagle.

    If people are so big they don’t fit in the seat at all then they don’t fly! Lose the weight or stay on the ground. I read the other day an airline charged an obese person for 2 seats. The problem was they were in different parts of the plane. Seems odd to me.

    The only legitimate argument I could see for widening seats and limiting the number of passengers is to prevent a plane from having trouble taking off due to the weight. However: I don’t see this as a legitimate argument since the airlines regularly haul bulky freight in the hull. the large freight certainly makes a bigger impact than an adult who needs to lose a few pounds.

    I think the smaller people and children flying average out the weight anyway.

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    • Maria says:

      Also think of it this way….

      Lets say it costs the same amount to build the Airbus with 350 seats and the same for Boeing to build their plane with 406 seats. Imagine it costs them each 30,000,000 (30 mil)

      Airbus would need to make 100 flights at a cost of $857.15 to pay for their plane.

      Boeing would need to sell seats at $738.91 for 100 flights to recoup the cost of their plane.

      Since we are talking economics, the question is would Airbus be able to convince the consumer the extra inch in seating is worth an extra $119.00 on an overseas flight? Could they market that the benefit is worth the cost?

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      • J1 says:

        No. The people who really want larger seats or are traveling on OPM are already in first/business. Regardless of what the latest U of Mich survey says, coach passengers care about one thing and one thing only – price. And they’ve punished airlines that thought otherwise without mercy.

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    • James says:

      The problem with letting the market decide here is that it can only be done if airlines choose to offer the different seat widths, and publicize that choice. Otherwise, the only market signal is people like me, who choose not to fly whenever we have an alternative.

      In my case (and I imagine there are many similar), that might be choosing to vacation within driving distance, rather than flying to Europe or New Zealand, and holds true even if there’s only a chance I’ll get the sardine seats, rather than a certainty. It’s revenue lost by the industry, rather than revenue going to the competition.

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      • mfw13 says:

        Exactly. A market-based solution only works if there are different choices available and those choices (and their prices) are publicized.

        My question is where are the regulators?

        I would think that passing a law/regulation stating that seats must be a minimum of 20″ in width and 35″ between seats would be pretty popular in Congress…

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  2. James says:

    I think there are a problems with converting a waist measurement to a diameter, ’cause most people aren’t round, and the waist isn’t the part that has to fit in the seat. Even for a fairly fit 6-footer like me, it seems a squeeze. Excuse me a moment while I find a tape measure…

    OK, 32″ waist, but about 16″ across the hip bones – not much to spare in a 17″ seat. But then I’m 24″ or so across the shoulders, which means that about 3″ of me would be overlapping into the neighboring seat on each side. Yet another reason I no longer fly commercial.

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    • Steve says:

      I don’t like flying either, and although the seat widths are tight in the shoulders as you suggest, my biggest gripe is the height the seat is built for. I’ve read before that the seats are made to be comfortable at 5’6” or 5’8”. At six feet tall, I feel cramped after flying for more than 2 hours, and often find myself knee-into-seatback-spine if someone leans their chair back. I wish more folks would start telling the airlines this is wrong with their pocketbooks – I find it obnoxious to pay hundreds of dollars to be treated like second class citizens and crammed into the tightest area economically possible..

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      • Armando says:

        I’m 6’4… I’ve never not purchased a ticket because of the seat location on the plane, but I will do all I can to get an isle seat. The seats are too narrow (I’m 185 lbs, so not overweight by any measure), too short (it’s impossible to sleep on the seats, because my head will just fall straight back over the seat), and there is not enough space between rows. I can’t even put my table down because my legs are always in the way.

        The problem is that for a lot of us there isn’t a better alternative to flying commercial, and as someone commented earlier, it’s ultimately ticket price that trumps all other considerations.

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  3. steve cebalt says:

    Now some airlines will be able to charge a premium for a one-inch-larger seat that will actually accommodate the average ass. A pity that this is the battleground for marketing and differentiation in the air travel industry.

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    • Pat McKlindon says:

      Am I the only person who loves airfare a la carte? Factoring in inflation, a long haul plane ticket has never been cheaper, even though fuel prices have risen dramatically. I love bag fees, “preferred seating” and meals at a price; it just means I’m not paying for anything I don’t want.

      The other reason ticket-prices have fallen is deregulation, which brings us back full-circle to the original topic of the article.

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      • James says:

        You’re probably not the only person. Indeed, I understand that if you surf the internet, you can find whole communities of like-minded people, on S&M sites :-)

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      • Armando says:

        But are tickets actually cheaper? Or are airlines keeping the prices the same then charging extra for these a-la-carte options?

        Worded differently, did airlines that offer a-la-carte pricing reduce the price of their tickets once they made all the options extra?

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      • Voice of Reason says:

        Armando, it’s capitalism. Innovations and cost savings techniques may benefit a firm temporarily, but eventually due to intense competition they will be passed onto the consumer. After airlines thought of charging a la carte to cut down on wastage, other airlines would catch on, and all involved would have to lower their prices to a point where they could still turn the same profit as before.

        Now, you pay for what you want, and not what the airline thinks you might want and eventually waste. Keep in mind, these concepts only apply to costs that are variable and not fixed.

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      • Jon says:

        The capitalism angle only works well if prices are transparent. One of the problems with these fees is that price comparison between competing flights gets difficult.

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  4. Torch02 says:

    I’m not nearly as worried about seat widths as I am about seat back widths. When I center myself on an aisle seat, my shoulders are at least two inches wider than the seat back on each side – which leads to a lot of flight attendants bumping into me.

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  5. Roger says:

    I have many seat mates that spil over into my seat. Right or wrong they do. Im sure there eould be a discrimination suit if the airlines went to a weight method.

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  6. Hank says:

    There is a problem with the diameter calculation, as it assumes the passenger has a circular frame. I have a 40 inch waste, but am shaped like an oval, meaning that I am more than 12.6 inches from hip to hip.

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  7. Mickey says:

    A better headline would be “Airbus asks for even more gov’t protection from competition”

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  8. Kris says:

    I’m not a big fellow, and even so i find the seats to be very narrow, and unconfortable for the back, they should at least invest in some extra padding for confort, is like trying to sleep on a wood board. i would really like to be able to afford first class.

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