I don’t know if laptops have gotten taller or I’ve gained, um, girth, but I can remember ten years ago flying around the United States and being able to comfortably work on my laptop until my battery ran out. Now there’s barely room for an open book, let alone some 17-inch marvel of digital engineering. Intuitively, airlines are adding more seats and more rows to offset the ever-rising cost of running an airline, but getting the inside scoop helps clarify exactly what’s been going on with this price-sensitive commoditized business.
That’s why when my friend and fellow writer Michael J. wrote recently about his experiences as a seat design engineering at Boeing, I couldn’t resist getting his permission to include it here on my weblog for everyone to read…
As a former Boeing seat engineer, I’ve heard my share of comments and
suggestions about size, spacing, and amenities…..
Everyone wants more recline on their airplane seats when they’re travelling, but it does push back into the space of the
next seat (and endangers the top of lots of laptops – and knees).
Several years ago, American Airlines removed 1 or 2 seat rows on most of their
airplanes to increase the pitch (distance between the same point on each
seat row) to try to build customer loyalty. Alaska Airlines has always
preconfigured their airplanes to do the same. A typical AA pitch is 37″;
a typical AS pitch is 34″; typical United States domestic economy is 31″ (In contrast, some
of the UK charters, last I knew (Monarch, AirUK), have an economy pitch
of 28″ – and as low as 26″).
The recline in front of exit rows are typically limited, as you know, but that
depends on the actual location of the seats, and the regulatory minimums
for emergency egress (ease of exit).
Every time Boeing or Airbus come out with a new airplane, they try
finding ways to help airlines maximize seat widths. Unfortunately, some
airlines will take advantage to sqeeze in an extra column of seats –
witness the 10-across seating on Boeing 777s (and 9-across on the slightly
narrower Airbus A340s).
As for the upgraded economy seats, the current trend was started by EVA
of Taiwan in the early 90s, where they configured some of their Boeing 747s
with 8 abreast seating (standard 747 economy is 10 abreast), 38″ pitch,
and seat back video systems.
Some of the major European airlines (BA/SK come to mind, especially their Inter-European service) have
traditionally differentiated business and economy class with only
upgraded service – the seats were identical. Then came the convertable
seats, where 6 across seating on a Boeing 737 could be easily converted to 5
across with the twist of a lever – converting the typical 17″ width seat
to 19″ widths.
On-board interactive video was my introduction into the world of networks, actually. Video on demand first appeared in seat back (and seat arm) monitors in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, the monitors, servers, hubs, cables, etc,
added several thousand pounds to each plane (each extra pound adds
$100-$400 in operating cost per year). Naturally, that was a moderate
The next step is coming, high-speed Internet access on the airplane.
Because of weight issues, though, I’m sure that Internet (and newer tech cell phone – probably CDMA) access will be wireless.
Thanks for sharing this information, Michael. It’s very interesting indeed…