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Should There Be a Minimum Seat Width Size for Long Haul Travel?

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You can often find me giving tips on how to get the best economy seats on a plane – a consideration that’s more important than ever now that nearly every airline seems intent on squeezing as many passengers as possible into their planes in order to increase profit margins. I’m not the only consumer advocate doing so, but what might surprise you is that a major airline manufacturer has joined the debate and is urging airlines to widen their seats – just fractionally – in order to better the customer experience.

An extra inch means a lot of extra sleep.
An extra inch means a lot of extra sleep.

Airbus has called on airlines to raise the minimum seat width to 18 inches in long-haul economy cabins, claiming that a recent The London Centre research study that measured everything from brainwaves to chest movement found that even a small enlargement (up from the current 17 inches or so that became the standard way back in the 1950’s) can improve passengers’ sleep quality by over 50 percent.

According to the announcement, Dr. Irshaad Ebrahim of the London Sleep Centre said, “The difference was significant. All passengers experienced a deeper, less disturbed and longer night’s sleep in the 18-inch seat…whilst in the narrower 17-inch seat, the passengers were affected by numerous disturbances during sleep, which meant they rarely experienced deep restorative sleep. When it comes to flying long-haul in economy, an inch makes a huge difference on passenger comfort.”

Taking into consideration the lifespan of aircraft, those with current seats could be in service until nearly 2050, which means decades of back spasms, contorted legs and fitful sleep ahead for all of us.

More planes will by flying further.
More planes will by flying further.

That’s because over the past five years with the advancement of technology and the number of planes capable of flying long distances, there has been a 70% increase of flights over 6,000 nautical miles (13 hours or more), with over 41 daily flights now within that span. Not only that, but over the next 15 years, Airbus expects the amount of passenger traffic to double as airlines will take delivery of over 29,000 new passenger planes, and many of those passengers are expected to decide which airline to fly based on seat dimensions as they put comfort first.

That will matter to airlines as customers vote with their wallets and shift their travel to airlines who are more likely to provide better seats, because as one of the infographics from the announcement notes, 89% of passengers use social media – 59% on a daily basis – no matter which class of service they are in, and they’ll tell all their friends and followers about their experience.

Passengers will use social media no matter what class they fly.
Passengers will use social media no matter what class they fly.

Now, I don’t want to put too much stock in these findings since it’s clear Airbus got a result it was looking for – it uses 18-inch seats as its standard, and as you’ll see below, it has created a graphic comparing its regional and long-haul jets to those of main rival Boeing to show that Boeing’s seats are often in the 17-inch range – so there’s a clear bias here and the facts and figures aren’t always accurate.

For instance, it simply blankets all Boeing’s with 17-inch-wide seats, but ANA’s 787’s have 18.6-inch economy seats, and those of Delta’s 767 and 777’s are around the 18-inch mark as well.

Clearly Airbus is singling out its rival.
Clearly Airbus is singling out its rival.

Still, the evidence is compelling, if not because of a sleep study, because of the fact that having to sit in a 17-inch-wide seat for over 13 hours is obviously going to be uncomfortable and over that length of time, every inch will count.

I do understand that airlines need to pack in as many passengers as possible in order to make money, but there must be some innovations that they can put in place, especially by working with plane manufacturers, to make their seats just the slightest bit roomier. It might even make economic sense – a little more room to stretch and sleep might mean fewer medical or air rage incidents in flight.

While I don’t expect airlines to take the bait anytime soon, I appreciate Airbus’s sharing this data and giving us all a chance to think about how much seat size really does matter.

If price were equal, would you fly an airline with an 18-inch seat over a 17-inch seat?

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