Design of Airplanes

Q: Why are airplane seats designed for thin people instead of your average overweight person? And do you believe things could be done to increase comfort while still allowing for the cattle herd in economy class?

The intonation here is somewhat rhetorical, and it’s no surprise to anyone that the airlines attempt to accommodate as many people as possible while retaining a modicum of comfort. I have much less of a problem with the width of the seats than other ergonomic deficiencies.

Seat widths in economy class have not changed, really, since the advent of jets. For example, a typical Boeing narrow-body, from the 707 through the 757, has always had six seats across split by an aisle, while the 747, with a few early exceptions, has always featured ten abreast split by two aisles. While the population has become notoriously wider, it’s crazy to expect the airlines to remove a seat from each row to better suit our collectively increasing girth.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t sensible and relatively inexpensive upgrades that would go a long way toward making a long flight more bearable. Four things, in addition to some obviously needed legroom, that would increase the comfort level of a coach seat immensely are:

1. Retractable footrests. Air France and various foreign airlines have them, even in coach, attached to the seat in front of you. The chance to periodically elevate your legs is quite helpful.

2. A headrest that keeps your head and neck in place. Adjustable headrests are becoming very common, but they do not extend fully enough to provide ample support.

3. A seat-back padded or sculpted for better lumbar support. (I use a pillow.)

4. Wider and/or more ergonomically shaped armrests.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.