Airbus Is Trying to Convince Airlines to Make More Room for Your … Behind

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Airline passengers, Airbus has got your back—and the rest of you.

Citing research conducted for the company by the London Sleep Centre, Airbus is proposing that an 18-in wide seat (45.72 cm) become the standard for long haul aircraft over the current 17-inch “crusher” seat. That’s about a 6% difference in size. The company is setting its marker down on the new A350, a 300-seat twin aisle, long range jet designed for an 18-inch coach seat. The A350 will debut late next year. While it’s not clear that Airbus customers will order the jets with the 18-inch seat, the company says that airlines that get too narrow could risk losing business to comfier competitors.

“We’re arguing that one inch makes all the difference,” says Kevin Keniston, who is Head of Passenger Comfort for the jet maker. “That extra one inch basically allows you the wiggle room, allows the space around hips and shoulders and elbows so you are not in permanent contact with your neighbor.”

That means you might actually be able to sleep. The Sleep Centre experiment, although small in scope, showed that there are huge differences to be gained from just a little extra room. Sleep quality in the 18-inch seat improved by 53% over the 17-inch version and allowed test subjects to fall asleep 14.7% faster. They stayed asleep longer before waking, too. The wider seats were also less twitchy—subjects didn’t move their arms and legs as much. The tests were conducted by the Sleep Centre using a mockup of an airline cabin, including simulated noise.

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Sad to say, Airbus is flying into a headwind on this one. Carriers such as American Airlines and United, for instance, have maxed out the seats on their new Boeing 777s and 787 Dreamliners. American’s 777-300 ER, for instance, uses 17-inch seats to cram 10 passengers across in coach, according to Seat Guru. Enjoy that on your 10 or 11 hour trip between London and Los Angeles. United’s Dreamliner to Tokyo from LAX goes nine across the back on seats that are 17.2 inches wide. Other airlines use eight seats in the Dreamliner’s coach compartment. Pleasant dreams.

To make matters worse, new thin seating technology has allowed airlines to play around with seat pitches and wedge in even more passengers onto their jets to generate more revenue from airfares and fees—and to prompt people to pay up for “extra” legroom and avoid being crushed. (Guess where they got the extra legroom from.)

“What we’re talking about here is the future of passenger comfort on long haul flights. What we see is an erosion of standards, of passenger comfort occurring steadily over a number of years now,” says Keniston. The company points out that long haul travel is expanding, noting that the number of flights longer than 6,800 miles has increased by 70% over the last five years. And it’s not just flights that are expanding; so are the passengers backsides, as you may have noticed.

Airbus can’t dictate to customers what kinds of seats they can have installed. As long as the seats meet certain safety and production standards, the company will install whatever width seat the purchaser specs out. The 17-inch seat standard evolved with the jet era itself. That was the seat width of the 707, says Keniston, the first widely used passenger jet. Gradually, seat width expanded to 18.5 inches in the long-haul market until deregulation and competition eventually reversed the trend.

Airbus’s pushback is getting some help. Keniston points out that manufacturers such as Embraer, Bombardier and Mitsubishi have brought new jets to market that offer seats that are 18.2 to 18.5 inches wide. Airbus has also designed its A380 and A330s to use seats that are at least 18-inches wide.

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But Airbus competes most directly with Boeing, and it’s trying to enlist passengers to gain an advantage over its fierce U.S. rival. By pushing the 18-inch standard on its own customers, the company hopes that travelers will increasingly trade stories on social media about better rides on wider, Airbus seats, and start seeking those jets out, whatever the airline. (You can use Seat Guru, Seat Finder, Seat Maestro and other such web sites to get pitch and width details about any airline’s seats.)

After years of squishing people together, though, it will probably take a lot more than Airbus to get airlines to stop treating passengers like cargo. Judging from their ads, the airlines apparently think their service is wonderful. But competition does have its uses. In the front of the plane, the innovation of lie-flat seats first used by British Air in business class a decade ago eventually forced competitors to match the offer.

Airbus estimates that the world’s airlines will buy more than 29,000 jets in the next 15 years. Which means that whatever standard wins out in the next couple of years will be in place for a generation. If the skinny seats win, we are going to be uncomfortable for a very long time—sort of like an overseas flight that never ends.