It’s 2013, and human beings are the largest they’ve ever been. Taller, wider, broader in the shoulders: millennia of evolution and modern lifestyle factors have all contributed to the fact that people are just bigger than they used to be.
And part of our modern lifestyle means people travel more — even the largest of us. Whether airlines call them customers of size, larger guests, fat flyers, or plumper passengers, people who need to travel are showing no signs of getting thinner.
Yet airline seats are getting narrower.
Last year, the first full-service carrier dipped under the 17in marker on a long-haul widebody. Qatar Airways’ 16.9in, nine-abreast configuration on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner marked a new low in seat real estate, joining low-cost airlines like AirAsia and charter carriers such as Air Transat in the narrowness stakes.
As airlines battle to squeeze more people onto the plane, passengers - even those who wouldn’t objectively be thought of as “larger people” – are suddenly finding themselves too fat to fly.
Airline Passenger Experience interviewed people who self-identified as “fat” or “larger” to learn more about larger passengers’ experience on the aircraft and at the airport.
Carolyn from San Diego (“I’m a US size 12″) outlines a common frustration: unpleasant surprises. ”We just got on a new Southwest 737-800 with Boeing Sky Interior. The bulkhead seats have firm dividers, not moveable armrests. No big deal, I prefer those if random people are sitting next to me. I sit down and… I can’t. My butt is too fat for the seat.”
“I had to switch seats. Thank god we pre-boarded; that would have been embarrassing if people were there.”
Confusingly for passengers, not all of Southwest’s aircraft have the firm dividers Carolyn encountered. Some, including the ones in the glossy PR snaps on the airline’s blog, have the moveable style she was expecting, as a Google image search for “Southwest new seats” rapidly shows.
Southwest, of course, isn’t the only airline with an inconsistent seat set. But how can larger passengers be expected to figure out whether they can “comfortably lower the armrest” - a standard airline check for whether a passenger requires a second seat – if the armrest changes from one flight to another on the exact same aircraft type?
Other flyers highlighted cases where a last-minute equipment downsizing meant their carefully selected jet with wider seats was replaced by a smaller, narrower turboprop, or where an aircraft with 18.5in-wide seats was replaced by one with 17.1in-wide seats.
With Southwest, an airline with a well-known ‘Customer of Size’ policy, at least passengers can find out what to expect.
Carolyn’s experience of not fitting between the fixed armrests on a Southwest plane hasn’t soured her on the carrier - an airline that many heavyset people swear off because of its inconsistently gate agent-enforced policy requiring larger passengers to buy an extra seat. “They’re still my favourite airline for many other reasons, and the other seats fit fine! It was just very shocking.”
By contrast, Harpreet (a consultant from San Francisco) refuses to fly Southwest. “They’ve made it very clear – the [highly publicised] Kevin Smith incident being the most public – that their policy on fat passengers is very strict.”
“Even though I’m now at a size that they wouldn’t target me,” he says, “I refuse to give them any money, even though I’m sure I could sometimes get a cheaper flight if I flew with them. I’ve known of far too many horror stories.”
Those “horror stories” are often thoughtless or nasty comments from gate staff or flight attendants – the latter of whom may be especially judgmental since they have to abide by weight restrictions in some countries.
Australian traveller Ruby, who lives in Melbourne, felt condescended to by snide flight attendants on Rex, a regional airline flying Saab 340 turboprops, when being handed an extension belt.
“It was the way she offered it to me, like she had to be overly discreet, as if I’d asked if she had anything for an embarrassing medical condition. It was delivered in the same way, a sort of ‘you poor thing, there you go, I have fixed it for you.’ As if this was somehow a shameful thing, instead of simply not being of a standard shape.”
Yet even though some crew reactions can sour larger passengers’ experience, fellow travellers are resoundingly worse, according to the people we interviewed.
Harpreet explains, “The most frustrating thing was always other passengers. I can’t even count how many people gave me dirty looks, and there were at least two times (possibly more where I didn’t actually hear/see it happen) where passengers next to me requested other seats. I get it – I didn’t like that my body spilled over into their space anymore than they did – but I still had to fly, just as they did.”
“The fear of other passengers is the worst,” says Susan from Cambridge in the UK. “I pray not to be put in a middle seat. I dread the stares of how unlucky they feel to be next to me. I act super friendly at check-in and ask if the plane is full, and if I can sit ‘alone’.”
In general, the larger passengers we talked to acknowledged that their size is their business, not the airlines.
Yet they also felt that airlines weren’t going far enough to take account of the worldwide trend for larger people, nor providing them with the information they need to make an informed choice of seating product.
Paraphrasing, larger passengers feel that airlines would rather forego their business than adapt to the unavoidable fact that people are bigger than they were in the 1960s.
And cabin cross-sections and seating layouts haven’t moved with the times either. A Boeing 707 and the latest Boeing 737 share the same fuselage diameter — 3.76m or 12ft, 4in — and the same six-across seating configuration.
But what happens if passengers of today don’t fit in the seats of half a century ago?
Most global airlines don’t tell their passengers how wide their seats are – nor how large their own policies state is “too large” to travel in one seat.
US airlines are the exception to the rule here, and Canadian airlines are required by law to provide an extra seat for passengers with a doctor’s note.
Airlines that do publish such information and have ‘Customer of Size’ policies often talk about heavyset people “encroaching” on the seat next to them: not exactly language to make larger people feel like valued customers or welcome on board.
Some carriers have the requirement that passengers must be able to lower the armrest “comfortably”. Yet when seats are under 17in wide and pitch is 28in, what is “comfortably”?
Other airlines specify restrictions for passengers requiring one or more seatbelt extenders. Yet there is no standard seatbelt length.
Michael, a New Zealand civil servant from Wellington, highlights a common problem. “Virgin Australia’s seatbelts in premium economy, which they have instead of business class on New Zealand flights, are a lot longer than the belts in their 737 business class in Australia. I can easily fasten the belts in premium economy, but in business I need an extender. It’s really weird and I don’t get it.”
Many airlines, including those with the narrowest seat width, don’t explain how passengers can purchase an extra seat for their own comfort.
Some airlines offer seats still available at check-in for sale as a ‘buddy seat’, but it’s rare to find a carrier outside North America proactively offering passengers a positive space second seat.
Fat flyers are often told by the industry, media and fellow travellers that they should pay up for a second seat, and our research showed that many would like to do so.
But if the airlines don’t explain how, don’t provide pathways to do so through their online booking portals, and larger travellers can’t figure out if they need to in the first place, is this really a reasonable suggestion?
Larger passengers often try to reserve the few seats on the plane with extra space: bulkheads and exit rows.
Yet airlines are incredibly inconsistent in their small-print requirements for passengers seated in exit rows. Just taking Europe’s largest five airlines, none has the same policy.
Ryanair, the airline everyone loves to hate, won’t allocate exit rows to passengers “using a seat belt extender (which could get tangled in an emergency)”.
Air France won’t allow “passengers whose body mass or weight would restrict access to an emergency exit” to occupy seats. The airline does not specify size or dimensions of its emergency exits, nor differentiate between emergency exits by doors or over the wing.
“Overwing exit seats are emergency rows and are not suitable for customers who… require a seat belt extension,” says easyJet – Europe’s fourth largest airline by passengers carried – in the small print on its web site.
EasyJet doesn’t provide a belt length measurement that passengers can use to check before leaving home, nor are there measurements in the airport.
British Airways has no published restrictions for reserving exit row seats.
German airline Lufthansa states: “For safety reasons these seats are allocated at check-in to passengers who, because of their physical condition, would be able to open the emergency exit correctly if required. It is therefore not possible to reserve a seat in an emergency exit row in advance.”
At the end of the day, airlines and the aviation industry must consider the prospect that larger passengers are here to stay, and their numbers are growing; it’s unrealistic to expect them all to have the means to purchase a premium class fare.
Innovative seating technologies need to be developed that aren’t based on the size of people in the 1960s. Yet much can be done with existing hard product. Expandable seats, armrests that raise flush, window seats with armrests that raise — all of these are currently flying.
What’s stopping airlines from capitalising on the larger passenger market and improving the passenger experience for everybody on the plane?
BIG THINKING, SMALL RESPONSE
Some airframers are already thinking big. In mid-2012, Airbus began shopping around a new seat concept for its narrowbody aircraft, with a 20in seat on the aisle and 17in seats in the middle.
The reaction from the general media was “airlines are shrinking your seat and giving it to fat people”, and no airline has ordered the seats.
A potential reason is that Airbus hasn’t marketed the generally wider seats found on its aircraft to the public in the first place.
Savvy travellers know that A320 family aircraft are several inches wider in cabin diameter than the Boeing 737 family, which lets airlines install 18in seats. (Or, in the case of most low-cost airlines and several full-service carriers, 17in seats and wider aisles for faster turnarounds.)
The same is true for the Airbus A380 vs Boeing 747, though the A330, 777 and 787 get into muddier waters of comparison.
Is the lack of success for the 20-17-17 row a lack of understanding, or a hyped-up media backlash? It can’t be a lack of passengers willing to pay up for extra space, since carriers are rushing to expand ancillary revenue extra-legroom seats in economy class and full premium economy cabins.
Is it that Airbus is planning to play the same game as Boeing for more airlines than just those occupying the end of the market where AirAsia X and Air Transat squeeze extra seats into their A330s and A300s?
Airbus’ Zuzana Hrnkova, in charge of marketing the airframer’s cabins, stated frankly earlier this year that a 3-5-3 layout on an Airbus A380 wasn’t out of the question.
One wonders if Emirates – already a 3-4-3 operator on its Boeing 777 fleet – will add an additional 38 seats (the number of rows with centre sections) to its A380.