By Jeffrey the Barak.
Last week I flew to Las Vegas and back from Los Angeles. This is a short flight, less than an hour, and also a silly flight because by the time you add taxis at either end and two hours for security and check in, driving to Las Vegas is almost as fast and a fraction of the cost, especially if there is more than one of you.
But this is about the flight. I chose an airline I had not tried before, Spirit Airlines. The online reviews of Spirit were absolutely terrible, but I noticed that almost every bad review was centered around the aircraft seats. The seats in the reviews did not recline, and the pitch, or distance from one seat to the next, was small. People were complaining that their seats did not recline and that there was no legroom.
I therefore immediately dismissed the complaints. I have experience of such seats from short flights within Europe and I knew that all you have to do is move your butt to the back of the cushion, close the gap between your lumbar region and the seat back, sit upright, and then there is plenty of legroom and your back feels great!
Of course, in the absence of such instructions, the average American traveller slides their butt forward, knees up against the seat in front, no lumbar support, in an effort to get a more reclined angle of seating, then they complain about the seat causing them discomfort.
On the flight home the Spirit jet had standard reclining seats and I can tell you it was much worse than the fixed rake seats on the way out.
But the subject here is aircraft seating. No-one loves it, many hate it and yet we need low fares and so the airline has to find a way to accommodate a full plane with as many fares as possible.
There are new ideas, but the average flyer is not going to like them, despite never having tried them.
Introducing the Standing Seat. Obviously we take up less horizontal space when our legs are straight beneath us (standing) than when we are sitting down with our knees in front. So what if we were to assume a more-or less standing position, with just enough of a seat ledge to take the weight off our feet? Would it be more comfortable, and could we get more seats aboard?
Well for a short flight, it is more comfortable to adopt a restrained lean. No clambering over seats to assume your position, no tired butt and stiffening limbs, and no problems walking out to the restroom from a window seat, that is unless the airline reduces the pitch and sandwiches in too many extra rows as in the photo to the left.
But how would it be to stand and lean on a twelve hour long-haul flight? More tiring than a seat, or less tiring? The consensus is, people want to sit down on longer flights, but tests show that it is less fatiguing to stand and lean for half a day than to sit in a soft chair, and sleep is easy in this upright non-bent position. You don’t fall down when you have your shoulder seat belt fastened and fall asleep. Testers do comment that it reminds them of being strapped into a ride at an amusement park, but they cannot objectively state that the new seats are uncomfortable, and comfort is the most important factor.
And you never have the situation with standing seats where you want to sit up, and the passenger in front reclines his seat back into your face. Basically now, if a front row passenger reclines, then everyone behind has to do the same to maintain some nose room.
Articles in the world’s press have taken a mocking, negative tone on the standing seat question. Something about the concept makes people decide they hate the idea without ever trying it or learning the facts. The FAA has not so far hinted that they would ever approve the concept, despite field testers liking them.
One issue is a regulation that requires a seat to be able to withstand a 16G downward force without breaking and failing, not that such an unimaginable force has ever been experienced in any flight since the first! A passenger’s own legs cannot do this, and it would be left mostly up to the seat belt system to support a standing flyer in such an impossibly extreme ascending situation.
The focus so far has been on designing a stand-up seat with less pitch so that more economy passengers can be squeezed in for short flights. However a slight redesign could introduce an even more radical system, like a leaning bed that would allow for a much more comfortable long flight than the traditional seat. But are we ready to accept the concept at all?
One company, Skyrider, has demonstrated a seating system that is mostly standing, but it is only halfway there, and the legs are still bent, and it is not a committed approach to the full lean, which may be a better goal.
The full lean is something we rarely see. In old Hollywood, stars with big gowns were given leaning boards with angled foot platforms so they could rest between takes without bending their clothes too much. This is a concept that could replace seating in aircraft and other vehicles too.
As long as we need to fly in long skinny tubes, there will be a need for a comfort revolution. It will be interesting to see how seating develops.
Jeffrey the Barak often flies, and always uses an airliner to assist him in such situations.