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3 Ways Airlines Sneak More Seats on the Same Plane

Do you fly a lot for work? Or are you one of the lucky ones who travels for pleasure more than a couple times a year?

If so, then you're no stranger to the phenomenon we call the airplane seat. If not, you'll probably still be able to relate to most of this, since the air travel experience has become so notoriously lackluster. 

I won't take a bunch of your time reminiscing about how great air travel used to be because, frankly, I don't remember it ever being too good. 

Seats have been uncomfortable for as long as I remember, and "recline" is a term used quite optimistically compared to the result you get when you push the little silver button. It's probably the closest they could get to a placebo effect without actually hitting it. 

Nonetheless, we all still fly more every year than the one before. It used to be a much bigger difference between the cost of driving to a destination and flying. I do remember when gas was $1/gallon and I could drive 10 hours from South Dakota to Colorado for about $30 each way. Plane tickets for that same trip were always in the $300's and up. It was a no brainer for my very limited budget. 

But now, with gas prices averaging nearly $4/gallon in the US, that same road trip would cost closer to $350+ for gas and still take 5 times longer to complete than flying. This sort of becomes a no-brainer again. Usually that round trip flight is close to the same price (or less) than it was 20 years ago. 

Score one for the airlines. 

But the scoreboard doesn't always tell the whole story. Since the days of $1 gas, the airlines haven't exactly kept things the same. It feels like their entire goal has become making us passengers as uncomfortable as possible -- all the while charging more and more fees for the experience. 

One of the more obvious things they've done to "streamline" things (aka cut costs and boost profit) is to move seats closer together. Originally, this involved sliding the seats a few inches closer, front to back, thereby getting an extra row or two on the plane. 

That must have been a winner in the boardroom, because over the last two decades, the average distance between seat backs shrank from 35 inches to 30 inches or less. The average seat width over the same time shrunk from 18 inches to just over 16 inches.

Over the length of a standard plane, airlines have been able to add as many as 18 extra seats, or 3 extra rows due to this shrinkage. This is one reason ticket prices haven't risen too much, but comfort has vastly decreased in the last 20 years. 

The second major thing that's happened to air travel and to the detriment of average passengers is the near elimination of the recline feature. Some airlines (the worst being those like Allegiant, who I have personally vowed to never fly again), have even eliminated recline all together. 

Is it really dangerous to recline? After all, they make you put the seat up at takeoff and landing. The answer is not really, but it's a convenient way to mask the true reason behind limiting or eliminating recline -- and it's closely related to my previous point.

Recline has been limited or removed to...you guessed it...save space. When our boardroom buddies decided that we didn't need leg room, they also realized that those 5+ inches between seats they clawed back didn't only affect our legs. 

When the seats became so much closer, the recline function became much more invasive to the passenger behind person reclining. So much that passenger fights and in-flight incidents rose dramatically. So, just like naughty kids, our toy (the recline button) had to limited or taken away all together. Oh, and it's way cheaper to build seats that don't recline.

It truly is impressive how efficiently airlines have taken the comforts out of flying, but the third major thing they did was actually kind of incredible. 

When airlines decided that all of their passengers now had to be the size of a 12 year old child to fit in the seats, they were faced with a major challenge: the passengers were mostly the size of full grown adults! A wild realization, I'm sure. 

But don't fret. Our boardroom friends weren't done with us yet. This is one of the most sinister things I learned when researching and designing our new Pelakin HS travel pillow. 

The problem with shrinking seats in every conceivable direction is that people weren't shrinking. In fact, most stats point to the fact that humans are growing bigger rather than smaller in a lot of ways. Yep, a lot of us are getting fat. 

But fat or skinny, short or tall, the airlines were determined to cram us into their new plane layouts. So how were they able to fit us into narrower seats?

How were they able to shave almost 2 inhes off the average seat width, from 18 to just over 16 inches, if the average shoulder width of the average male adult is also just over 16 inches (and sometimes much more)?

If we are, on average, the same width as the seat, wouldn't we be rubbing shoulders constantly with our neighbor? Of course we would, if not for our thoughtful airplane engineer friends!

Engineers are good at math and physics stuff, right? They knew the numbers didn't add up. But in the spirit of the greats like the Apollo 13 engineers or the people who stuffed cream into Twinkies, they found a workaround.

Someone, somewhere along the line, realized that if they simply ice-cream-scooped the foam out of the middle of the back of the seat, they could create a big hole for us to slump in to. 

Basically, by making the back of the seat concave, it forces you to slump your back into the void. When you slump your back into the void, you hunch over. And when you hunch over, you can't help but shrug your shoulders forward and become narrower. 

Yep -- the ingenious solution was to encourage terrible posture in the name of narrowing passengers' shoulders and increasing seats per plane.

It now has to be obvious that you are only just a number to airlines. Just a tick mark on a spreadsheet somewhere. 

But, to loosely quote the former CEO of American Airlines, these new seats feel exactly like the old seats and people won't notice (paraphrased, but it's basically what he said). 

So rest easy. Enjoy that flight. Know that you're in good hands and your comfort is not even an afterthought, it's long gone and isn't coming back.