“You can curl up in the big roomy seat...or if you’re a six footer, you can stretch out to your long legs’ content!” So promised a 1960s-era advert for United Airlines, then America’s biggest carrier. Today, most passengers can only dream of such luxury. Aeroplane seats have become ever more cramped—and they are not about to get roomier.
In the 1960s passengers could indeed stretch out at 35,000 feet. Back then the distance between rows—known as seat pitch—was around 35 inches in economy class. But after America deregulated air travel in 1978, ticket prices dropped. Leg room and seat width soon followed. In the past two decades, as airlines have crammed ever more seats onto their planes, the average width of an airline seat has narrowed from 18.5 to 17 inches. Seat pitch has shrunk from 35 to about 31 inches, according to Flyers’ Rights, an advocacy group.
Cost-conscious flyers are rarely satisfied with their cramped quarters. Naturally, airlines have responded by offering them a little extra space—for a price. Seats once considered standard size are now sold as “premium economy”. Exit rows, which need a bigger pitch to accommodate emergency-exit doors, cost more on many routes. First-class passengers, meanwhile, can luxuriate in up to 90 inches of space. Business travellers enjoy up to 82 inches.
Many rage against the squeezing of the flight, to little end. In Asia, where 100m people fly for the first time every year, carriers are determined to squeeze in passengers anywhere they can. Cebu Air, in the Philippines, has even promised to move kitchens and bathrooms to do so. In 2018 America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would not regulate airline seat size, despite concerns that it is hard to evacuate planes into which more and more passengers are crammed. Even narrow seats with puny pitches, the FAA argued, allow passengers to get out safely. It declared: “The FAA has no evidence that a typical passenger, even a larger one, will take more than a couple of seconds to get out of his or her seat.”
This article is from our Graphic detail section.