Why plane seats are getting smaller

Sunday February 25 2018

Ever wondered how some aircraft seem to have more rows of seats than others? It boils down to seat choice by the airline manufacturer. PHOTO | FILE

Ever wondered how some aircraft seem to have more rows of seats than others? It boils down to seat choice by the airline manufacturer. PHOTO | FILE 

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Ever wondered how some aircraft seem to have more rows of seats than others? It boils down to seat choice by the airline manufacturer.

Aircraft assemblers like Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer source their seats from specialist seat manufacturers.

For the assemblers, the balance between cost and benefits trumps passenger comfort. Actually, comfort is hardly a factor except when it comes to first or business class seats.

The first consideration aircraft manufacturers make when choosing seat type is the weight of the seat.

Simply put, heavy seats mean a heavier aircraft, hence more fuel consumption. This translates into higher operation costs, which in turn are passed on to the passengers in one way or another.

After weight and fuel savings, manufacturers are also keen on how many passengers can be fitted into the cabin by way of extra seating rows. This means the aircraft operates at its most economical.

Not only has the aircraft seat become lightweight, it is also narrower in terms of width. So in a single aisle body aircraft, the six seats abreast is a possibility and in a wide body aircraft up to 10 seats abreast is possible with an “illusion” of a spacious cabin.

From armchair-like seats used in the early 1900s, today’s airline seat is made of lightweight material and is much smaller yet more “connected” to amenities such as power outlets, USB ports and entertainment/video on demand screens.

If an aircraft will be used solely for short haul flights, the seats can be expected to be as uncomfortable as they can get, with minimum amenities. That partly explains the “no frills” disclaimer by budget airlines.

Expectedly, long haul flight seats are fitted with adjustable headrests, can recline and in some cases even have inbuilt massage features in first or business class.

However, there is a trend now of not having the reclining seat in economy class even for non-low cost airlines. British Airways announced this year that it would fit non-reclining seats in its new fleet of 35 Airbus aircraft scheduled to enter service later this year.

Apparently, the non-recline seats have fewer moving parts hence cheaper to maintain. But the big win here for passengers, loss of comfort aside, is the fact that probably this will mean less altercations during flights arising from passengers arguing over whether a reclining seat is making the passenger behind it uncomfortable.

So next time you board such a flight, all seats will have the same recline, and no questions asked. Maybe, passengers will now have to find out when booking a flight, what type of seats to expect.

Combine these developments with the ever-shrinking legroom, and you will find that airliners are now carrying more passengers in an efficient manner, without necessarily becoming bigger. This means more seats available for sale.

Seat size and recline aside, the seat cover material determines how clean or dirty they get and there are airlines with dirty seats.

The explanation is not whether the craft has been cleaned or not, but rather what type of material has been used. Airlines have a choice of either genuine leather, artificial leather or a wide variety of fabrics, each with cost and maintenance implications.

While the general consensus is that leather is long lasting, easier to maintain and clean, most airlines settle for fabric because it is cheaper. Leather is also considered heavier.

However cheap, fabric seats, which are common with many airlines in the region, take a lot to maintain and keep looking new and squeaky clean.

Recently, a study suggested that you should be more concerned about the state of hygiene of your aircraft seat than the onboard lavatory.

The report singled out the armrests and tray tables as a haven for germs.

Unfortunately, passengers have no say when it comes to the size, weight and material of the aircraft seat.

But as flying gets more competitive, flyers can review and choose the airline to use based on factors like duration of flight, and seat amenities.  

Or better still, fly business class.

Michael Otieno an aviation consultant and travel writer based in Nairobi. Twitter:@mosafariz; Email: [email protected]