Incredible Shrinking Airline Seats

Shoot Date: 
Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Many of us save up vacation time until summer, when the kids are off and it seems easier to get away from work. If that sounds like you, you may be in for a big surprise if your plans involve flying. Because the airlines have been squeezing even more of us into that small space otherwise known as an airplane. Here with what you need to know is Shari O.

How on earth are they fitting even more seats into planes?


  • Rows
  • Width
  • Pitch
  • Materials

It's all about how many rows they can fit in and how many seats in each row. Adding rows and seats creates capacity growth without the expense of new airplanes and makes a low-margin business more profitable.

We went from 150 rows to 160 and now as many as 172 rows in newer planes. That translates to most airlines today being down to 30, some as little as 29 inches between you and the seat in front of you. Some airlines are down to 28 inches of space from the back of your seat to the seat back in front of you in their basic coach rows, down from the once-standard 32 inches (and 34 inches only 15 or so years ago) of what’s called seat pitch. As far as the number of seats per row, Boeing single-aisle planes typically have 17.2-inch-wide seats in coach. Airbus single-aisle planes have 18.3 inches because of a wider fuselage. New seats are built to hug the sidewall, moving the window seat closer to the window. I just flew back from LA in a window seat with no armrest on the window side. Seats on widebody planes used to be 18 inches wide, but now that is dwindling to 17 inches. The Boeing 787 was designed to have eight seats across, but now almost every airline flies it with nine 17-inch-wide seats in each row. The Boeing 777 has gone from nine abreast to 10.

They do that with slimmer more flexible materials. The frame got smaller and lighter and the back portion of the seat moved forward - it tucks in around your bottom and opens up shin space for the person behind you. The seat pan you sit on used to be padded metal but now is netting that stretches to your shape.

Is that safe?


  • Evacuation Criteria

There is no comfort rule. Instead, planes are certified at maximum seating density for evacuation - everyone must be able to get out within 90 seconds using only half the exits. So the limiting factor in an evacuation is the aisle size, not the seat size. But you've got to think that at some point there would be too many people to physically get them out on time. It's hard to imagine a whole plane deposing in a minute and a half given how long it seems to take nowadays to get everyone on and off a plane under normal circumstances. Generally speaking, statistics show that the safest seats on a plane tend to be middle seats near the rear, the exact ones none of us want to sit in. Seats near the back third of the airplane have a 32% fatality rate versus 39% in the middle third and 38% in the front third. As for row position, middle seats in the rear have a 28% rate. The worst are the aisle seats in the middle of the plane at 44%. Being near an exit gives you a better shot. It mostly depends on the circumstances of the accident. Chances of dying in car crash are 1 in 112. As a pedestrian 1 in 700. On a motorcycle 1 in 900. On a plane 1 in 8000. Other experts say you have a 1 in 1.2 million chance of being in a plane crash and if you are on such a flight, a 95.7% chance of surviving. It comes down to surviving impact and then getting out fast.

But the other issue is that cramming us all in has had obvious impacts on everyone's stress level which goes to other health and safety concerns.

What can we do?


  • Best
  • Worst
  • Average

As passengers we speak with our wallets. So the power we have is to give our business to airlines that seem most concerned with our comfort. Some of the best airlines in this regard are JetBlue with rows 32 inches long not to mention Wi-Fi and free seat-back entertainment. Virgin America is close with 32-inch seat pitch and similar amenities. Southwest has some planes at 32 and others at 31. Spirit and Frontier are among the worst with 28-inch seat pitch. American, Delta and United are in between with most of their planes at 30 to 31 inches of seat pitch.

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