Up, up and away

A 6'4" Eric Hagerman says he dreads flying because there simply isn't enough space in an economy class seat for his outsized frame. More importantly, he argues there isn't enough space in it for the 'average' sized person.  The passenger can get into the space provided, but once there, he is practically immobile.

Most carriers fix their seats somewhere between a 31- and 34-inch pitch. Assuming a seat thickness of two inches, even the tightest spacing actually allows for 99th-percentile males to squeeze in. But once they're in there, they can't move. "Wiggle room," Brauer says, "contributes to comfort in a very real way, but not in a way that is easily quantified." For me to be able to cross my legs, I'd need 26.25 inches for my femurs, about five inches for my calves, plus two inches for the seat: a 33.25-inch pitch. That rarely happens.

That squeeze can result in a real level of discomfort. In 2006, General Formica concluded that holding enemy prisoners for more than two days in space larger than that available to passengers in economy class was unreasonable. "General Formica found that in the third case at a Special Operations outpost, near Tikrit, in April and May 2004, three detainees were held in cells 4 feet high, 4 feet long and 20 inches wide, except to use the bathroom, to be washed or to be interrogated. He concluded that two days in such confinement "would be reasonable; five to seven days would not." Two of the detainees were held for seven days; one for two days, General Formica concluded." The graphic below shows the space available in several economy class configurations.

A little arithmetic will show that even with a 36" inch pitch, 3' x 6' x 1.48 equals 26.1 cubic feet, actually less than the ( 4' x 4' x 1.7'=26.7 cubic feet) space available to the detainees in Tikrit. Admittedly, flights are typically shorter than two days, but the space comparison makes Hagerman's point. A Boeing designer explained than any incidental comfort to passengers comes from the possibility that you will be assigned a place adjacent to an empty seat or one next to a midget.

Optimizing coach comfort, he says, relies heavily on two probabilities: one, that not everyone in a row will be the same size, and two, that not every seat will be full. "In business class, one of the things you pay for is the near-zero probability that the passenger next to you will extend into your space," Brauer says. "And the free drink." His antidote to my pain: "Fly business class."

Unfortunately, flying business class causes another kind of pain when the credit card bill arrives. But it highlights the core of the problem: Hagerman argues that airlines which have tried offering seating arrangements in between business class and the 26 cubic foot prison have not fared well. The world is apparently a bimodal one, in which one group of passengers are willing to pay very much more for reasonable seating while the rest have accepted the devil's bargain of cramped seating in exchange for lower cost. In the end, we can always do something about cramped seating, as long as we're willing to pay for it.