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Honey they shrunk the airline seat

A client recently commented about the seating on a flight from Denver to the East Coast. This client was not complaining about the leg room or bin space; both reoccurring news items concerning the airlines and revenue streams (yes charging for overhead bin space is a reality). No, this client is Premier Status thus he is usually seated towards the front of the plane and when possible secures an exit-row seat as he is taller than average.

The call was interesting as the client was seated on a newer Airbus plane in the exit row. He said he just could not get comfortable during the duration of the 4 hours flight. He opined the seat design was the culprit. I listened with some skepticism yet I was intrigued to investigate further.

What I did while far from statistically significant or scientific was to compare the seating on the older aircraft used on the specific route he flew; a Boeing 757-200 to the Airbus 320 V3 comparing seats within the Economy Cabin towards the front of the cabin, an area offering extended leg room per the airlines marketing.

The initial review found little difference except concerning the pitch which can make the seat, depending on position more or less comfortable. However the client advised this was not the issue as he kept the seat in the upright position during the duration of the flight as he was working on his laptop.

My first review was the measurements offered by the airlines concerning their seating for the two models of planes noted used on their domestic routes:

Pitch: Boeing = 36”* Airbus = 31”

Width: Boeing = 17” Airbus = 17.7”

Recline: Boeing 5” Airbus = 5”

*Measurement for Premium Economy Seat

Thus I decided to do additional research including empirical i.e. physically observed as well as pursuing the information provided by manufacturers. To my surprise my client was correct.

The Boeing aircraft, generally an older model provides seating with a design, dimensions and cushioning most frequent fliers are familiar with. While such seats could never equal the comfort of business or first-class, they were and are adequate for most longer-haul domestic flights including Denver to New York, Detroit to San Francisco and even a few international routes such as Dallas to Cancun.

The culprit, some newer Airbus planes within the fleet of multiple United States based airlines are installing a newer seating option designed and manufactured by Recaro (a brand many car enthusiasts are aware of for their exemplary design after-market seats as well as driver seats for our local RTD busses).

The new seats have a unique ergonomic and space-efficient design which places the information/magazine pocket above the tray table, away from the passenger's knees. The seat itself is constructed using lighter-weight frames and thinner padding that allow for additional seating if the airline client chooses. Of note the armrests are slightly narrower allowing for additional width dimensions concerning the actual seat.

Concerning the literature the new Recaro CL3510 seat does present itself as more inviting. I was fortunate enough to try both types of seats on a round trip between Denver and the East Coast with a 40 hour layover in-between.

Heading westbound I was on a Boeing 757-200 with the standard seating design used for decades including adequate padding, armrests with entertainment controls built-in, a fabric covering. Being the standard bearer for airline seating for years and maybe due to muscle memory, the seat was for lack of a better term, familiar. If I were to rate comfort from a scale of 1-10, a solid 7.

Heading eastbound less than two days later I was flying on the Airbus 320 V3. At first glance the seating was visually stimulating i.e. the covering material providing a visual and feel of leather, an ingenious seatback design which true to the literature does indeed increase knee room. Also the seat did actually feel wider tested by shifting my weight side-to-side via my hips.

Yet I too was challenged to find a truly comfortable seating position, thus for the next few hours I scrutinized to why I could not get comfortable. Of note I did not use a tape measure to avoid suspicious stares.

Seat Frame Padding: Simply there is less of it. Depending on my position in the seat, I could feel the internal frame against my back and shoulder blades. Memories of sofa-sleepers from the 1970's became a reference point. While in-flight the solution occurred as I pulled out my travel blanket for additional padding specifically on the lower back area.

Note to the airlines, consider adding a lumbar support with an air bladder as is found in many cars for which time in the seat is usually less than a medium-haul flight.

Seat Cushion Length: Again I did not use a measuring instrument however I felt the Airbus seat cushion length was demonstrably truncated by a few inches. I am a man of average height i.e. 5’9” and the seat cushion barely reached my mid-thigh; in turn I felt like I was sitting on a stool.

I asked the female passenger adjacent who was approximately 4” shorter than me about the seat cushion and she too advised the short length did not provide the comfort and support of the Boeing seats of the past.

Solution: None; yet would be pleasant for those who may be short in the rise.

Airlines again take note, while the shorter seat cushion may technically extend knee room the lack of comfort and support trumps the added knee space.

Now in the defense of the airlines installing the new Recaro Seats; while passenger comfort may be an issue and many airlines are retaining the existing seat configuration i.e. number of seats thus no increase in seating capacity, there is an inherent savings using the new seat design; they are 30% lighter versus the seats of past generations.

While shaving off 30% of seat weight may not be as comfortable for passengers, the cost savings concerning weight reduction and subsequent fuel savings can and will make a major impact on the airlines bottom-line.

So what can one do to insure comfort or at least a more pleasant experience?

First one can choose their flight and thus seating based on the plane. Please note it is not just a Boeing versus Airbus situation. The newer Boeing’s in the 800/900 versions of single-aisle aircraft seem to have narrower seats (entertainment controls remain in the armrests) and less padding as well, just not to the extent of the Recaro seats.

Thus when booking a flight, in addition to schedule look at the aircraft type and seating configuration. The information is usually available on the airlines booking site as well as Seatguru.

Second option and not sure this is viable, my client suggested wearing bike shorts as an undergarment when flying offering padding and compression support, not a bad idea. I am not sure what the visual would present on the full body-scanner not to mention the explanation during a pat-down.

Third, concerning the shortened bottom-cushion length, not much can be done without changing one’s physical body structure, a truly limited option.

My client did not end with the complaints concerning the seats. As mentioned the new Recaro seats have narrower arm rests as the entertainment controls are not in the armrest. Nor are they in the rear of the seat cushion or on a stalk, they are no where to be found.

On my client’s flight and mine, there was no in-seat entertainment. There was no movie for the flight nor DirectTVand no screens i.e. individual or for the cabin. (I did not realize this initially, the safety demonstration was conducted by the crew, not via animated video).

The new plane I was on was equipped with in-flight Wi-Fi service available for an additional charge with pricing based on desired length of use and payable via credit card through one’s browser. While one could argue the Wi-Fi service does offer passengers unlimited and truly bespoke entertainment options; I pity the passenger traveling sans laptop/tablet or the family wishing to keep the children entertained without busting the budget concerning Internet charges.

I am not faulting the airlines, they are in business to make a profit. Also, there was a time when in-flight entertainment was not existent beyond the meal service. (Of note, a friend flew a European flagged carrier a few years back and the 747 plane still had the pull-down screen in the front of the cabin for the movie!)

Yes, I have an extensive history of flying, enough to remember the last of the economy cabins with 2+2 seating; Midwest based out of Milwaukee and also served warm cookies throughout the cabin. And yes I am amazed at the technology available while flying at 35,000 feet at over 500 miles per hour. And while I will continue to fly due to logistics and cost (yes, flying when factoring inflation is still less cost than before deregulation).

Seating on Greyhound and Amtrak sure is looking more inviting these days. While it is doubtful we will ever return to 2+2 seating in economy class and entertainment once an amenity is now provided at an additional cost for capital generation, I would respectfully request the airlines to add some padding and a few additional inches to the seat-bottom cushion.