Wedging in wide bodies

When airlines decided how wide they wanted their seats in sardine class, James Armstrong jokes, they must have taken the average size of a person – including infants – into account.

But when the Foster City, Calif., software engineer travels, the joke’s on him. “It can lead to a few days of stiff muscles and a sore back on arrival,” he fusses. “The seats are definitely too narrow.”

Just as cramped legroom puts the squeeze on tall passengers, narrow seats can trap travelers like Armstrong, who has a broad frame, in a virtual vise grip. It’s gotten so bad that he prefers to stand and walk around the cabin when the seatbelt sign is off.

Even though Overeaters Anonymous hasn’t formally approached the carriers about increasing the seat size, there’s some grumbling among the rank-and-file.

“There are plenty of us who have had unpleasant experiences trying to wedge ourselves into narrow seats,” says one senior member, who insisted on anonymity.

Indeed, the average seat in economy class is roughly 17.5 inches wide. By my calculations, anyone with more than a 44-inch waist wouldn’t be able to sit in such a confined space. Instead, he or she would have to push back the armrests and invade a seatmate’s space or obstruct the aisle.

That’s exactly what happened to Ronald Olshausen, a consultant who recently got wedged between “two absolutely enormous women, probably weighing 300 pounds each” for an 11-hour flight between San Francisco and Paris. At one point during the flight, he says, he was so compressed from both sides that he blacked out. “It was a miserable flight.”

Don’t look to the Federal Aviation Administration for help on this issue. As long as travelers can get to and from the seat under their own power, stuffing big people in little seats is OK by the government. Cruel, but OK.

That’s not right, says Austin aviation attorney Michael Slack. “The seat sizes are going in one direction while the average size of a person is going in another. And I’m not just talking about morbidly obese people. It’s getting to the point where even small people can’t sit comfortably,” he says.

Slack believes airlines approach manufacturers with cabin specifications that maximize profits while disregarding pain. “It’s all a matter of capacity.”

Frank Hopkins, an audiovisual consultant to the California State Senate, thinks it’s time for a little disclosure. “Ideally,” he says, “airports of any consequence would have a set of model seats that visitors could test-sit and decide if they could stand such close quarters for a prolonged period.”

“We have a Universal Product Code on just about every item we sell these days,” he points out. “Can’t we come up with a similar code for the width, depth and pitch of airline seats?”

Wouldn’t that be nice? But I doubt it would change anyone’s itinerary. Given that suffering is such an integral part of the airline travel experience today, what are a few extra inches over a few hours? To passengers like our anonymous friend, they’re a lot. The rest of us will endure the discomfort because we’re getting a dirt-cheap fare.

Never mind the logistics of widening seats. In order to expand seat size, an airline would have to sacrifice a whole row of seats or an entire aisle, neither of which is feasible or reasonable. Leaving us with two alternatives: upgrade all the wide bodies to first class or leave it up to big people to deal with the discomforts.

Maybe a little bit of both is called for. Gate agents, who are the final arbiters of who gets the good seats and who doesn’t, should show some compassion for their heavier passengers. And large passengers should make the effort to alert the airline to their condition and try to book a seat next to an empty space. After all, every major airline will accommodate a passenger with a disability and obesity qualifies as a kind of disability.

But ultimately it is up to aircraft manufacturers, airlines and the companies that make the seats to make us feel less like we’re sitting in a trash compactor and more as if we’re customers.

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