2006-04-25 15:17:22 UTC
April 25, 2006
One Day, That Economy Ticket May Buy You a Place to Stand
By CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT
The airlines have come up with a new answer to an old question: How
many passengers can be squeezed into economy class?
A lot more, it turns out, especially if an idea still in the early
stage should catch on: standing-room-only "seats."
Airbus has been quietly pitching the standing-room-only option to Asian
carriers, though none have agreed to it yet. Passengers in the standing
section would be propped against a padded backboard, held in place with
a harness, according to experts who have seen a proposal.
But even short of that option, carriers have been slipping another row
or two of seats into coach by exploiting stronger, lighter materials
developed by seat manufacturers that allow for slimmer seatbacks. The
thinner seats theoretically could be used to give passengers more
legroom but, in practice, the airlines have been keeping the amount of
space between rows the same, to accommodate additional rows.
The result is an additional 6 seats on a typical Boeing 737, for a
total of 156, and as many as 12 new seats on a Boeing 757, for a total
That such things are even being considered is a result of several
factors. High fuel costs, for example, are making it difficult for
carriers to turn a profit. The new seat technology alone, when used to
add more places for passengers, can add millions in additional annual
revenue. The new designs also reduce a seat's weight by up to 15
pounds, helping to hold down fuel consumption. A typical seat in
economy class now weighs 74 to 82 pounds.
"There is clearly pressure on carriers to make the total passenger
count as efficient as possible," said Howard Guy, a director for Design
Q, a seating design consultant in England. "After all, the fewer seats
that are put on board, the more expensive the seat price becomes. It's
Even as the airlines are slimming the seatbacks in coach, they are
installing seats as thick and heavy as ever in first and business class
- and going to great lengths to promote them. That is because each
passenger in such a seat can generate several times the revenue of a
At the front of the cabin, the emphasis is on comfort and amenities
like sophisticated entertainment systems. Some of the new seats even
feature in-seat electronic massagers. And, of course, the airlines have
installed lie-flat seats for their premium passengers on international
Seating specialists say that all the publicity airlines devote to their
premium seats diverts attention from what is happening in the back of
the plane. In the main cabin, they say, manufacturers are under intense
pressure to create more efficient seats.
"We make the seats thinner," said Alexander Pozzi, the director for
research and development at Weber Aircraft, a seat manufacturer in
Gainesville, Tex. "The airlines keep pitching them closer and closer
together. We just try to make them as comfortable as we can."
There is one bit of good news in the thinner seats for coach class:
They offer slightly more room between the armrests because the
electronics are being moved to the seatbacks.
One of the first to use the thinner seats in coach was American
Airlines, which refitted its economy-class section seven years ago with
an early version made by the German manufacturer Recaro.
"Those seats were indeed thinner than the ones they replaced, allowing
more knee and legroom," Tim Smith, a spokesman for American, said.
American actually removed two rows in coach, adding about two inches of
legroom, when it installed the new seats. It promoted the change with a
campaign called "More Room Throughout Coach."
But two years later, to cut costs, American slid the seats closer
together and ended its "More Room" program without fanfare. When the
changes were completed last year, American said its "density
modification program" had added five more seats to the economy-class
section of its MD-80 narrow-body aircraft and brought the total seat
count to 120 in the back of the plane. A document on an internal
American Airlines Web site, which was briefly accessible to the public
last week, estimated that the program would generate an additional $60
million a year for its MD-80 fleet.
United Airlines has also used the earlier-generation thin seats. But it
held open the possibility that once its current seat stock needs to be
replaced, it might try to squeeze in more seats. "We're always looking
at options," Brandon Borrman, a spokesman, said.
Airlines can only do so much with their existing fleets to save space.
The real opportunities, say seat manufacturers and design experts, are
with the new generation of aircraft that are coming soon.
"People hear about these new planes, and they have bowling alleys and
barber shops," Michael B. Baughan, the president and chief operating
officer of B/E Aerospace, a manufacturer of aircraft cabin interiors in
Wellington, Fla., said with a bit of exaggeration. "But that's not how
planes are delivered. On a real airline, with real routes, you have to
be economically viable."
Perhaps the most extraordinary example of a new jet that could
accommodate features unheard of previously is the Airbus A380. There is
so much available room on the superjumbo that Virgin Atlantic Airways
is even considering placing a beauty salon in its premium-class
section. (No final decision has been made, according to the company.)
The first A380 is scheduled to be delivered later this year.
With a typical configuration, the A380 will accommodate about 500
passengers. But with standing-room-only seats, the same plane could
conceivably fit in 853 passengers, the maximum it would be permitted to
"To call it a seat would be misleading," said Volker Mellert, a physics
professor at Oldenburg University in Germany, who has done research on
airline seat comfort and has seen the design. If such a configuration
were ever installed on an aircraft, he said, it would only be used on
short-haul flights like an island-hopping route in Japan.
While an Airbus spokeswoman, Mary Anne Greczyn, played down the idea
that Airbus was trying to sell an aircraft that accommodated 853
passengers, the company would not specifically comment on the
There is no legal barrier to installing standing-room seats on an
American airliner. The Federal Aviation Administration does not mandate
that a passenger be in a sitting position for takeoffs and landings;
only that the passenger be secured. Seating must comply only with the
agency's rules on the width of aisles and the ability to evacuate
quickly in an emergency.
The Air Transport Association, the trade association for the airline
industry in the United States, does not have any seat-comfort
standards. Nor does it issue any recommendations to its members
regarding seating configurations.
The two Asian airlines seen as the most likely to buy a large plane for
short-haul flights, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, are lukewarm
about the Airbus plan.
"Airbus had talked with us about an 800-seat configuration for domestic
flights," said Rob Henderson, a spokesman for All Nippon Airways. "It
does not fit with our present plans going forward."
A spokesman for Japan Airlines, Geoffrey Tudor, said Airbus had
presented its ideas for using the A380 on short-haul flights, but
added, "We have no interest in increasing seat capacity to this level."
Boeing is under similar pressure to squeeze more seats onto its newest
aircraft, the midsize Boeing 787. Some airlines are planning to space
the seats just 30 inches apart from front to back, or about one inch
less than the current average.
And rather than installing eight seats across the two aisles, which
would afford passengers additional elbow room, more than half of
Boeing's airline customers have opted for a nine-abreast configuration
in the main cabin, said Blake Emery, a marketing director at Boeing.
Even so, he said, "It will still be as comfortable as any economy-class
Indeed, it is possible to have it both ways: more comfortable seats
that are also more compact. For example, the latest economy-class seat
from B/E Aerospace, called the ICON, allows the seat bottom to move
forward when the seat is reclined, so that it does not steal legroom
from the passenger behind it. It also incorporates better ergonomic
designs now typically found in the business-class cabin.
But the ICON and similar seats can cost up to three times more than the
$1,200 that a standard coach seat costs. That may make them
unaffordable to all but a few international airlines that would use the
seats on long-haul routes, the experts said.
Some frequent fliers, asked about the slimmer seats, said they feared
that the result would be tighter quarters. Some expressed concerns
about sharing a cabin with even more passengers and increasing the risk
of contracting a communicable disease.
Others were worried about even more passengers sharing the
already-tight overhead bin space.
"It seems like every year there is less room for my long legs," said
Bud Johnson, who is a frequent traveler for a military contractor in
Scottsdale, Ariz. "I'm afraid that's going to continue."