TWO economy-class passengers recently caused a ruckus on a flight between Miami and Paris, after one annexed the sliver of territory they shared by reclining his seat. It was one of three such incidents within a fortnight which led to planes being diverted.
Nowadays those at the cheap end of the plane barely have room to open their copies of Thomas Piketty’s recent book lamenting a new age of inequality. Yet airlines think there is further scope for cramming more bodies into economy, and that passengers, for all their moans, will tolerate this in exchange for cheap fares. Meanwhile, business class keeps on getting comfier.
Some economy-class seats have already lost about 30% of their weight in the past 10 to 20 years, says René Dankwerth of RECARO, a seat-maker. But there is scope to do more: padding is being made thinner by replacing foam with netting; reclining mechanisms are being removed from some short-haul planes. Most of the extra room thus created is used to squeeze in extra rows of seats.
Skift, a research firm, notes that this has prompted a seating war among the planemakers. First, Airbus increased capacity on its A320 short-haul plane from 180 to 189 to match that of Boeing’s 737. Boeing responded with a new, 200-seater 737. So Airbus is now promising a 240-seater. The new planes will be no longer than their older versions.
Ryanair, which has just announced a huge order for the new 737, says its seats will be an average of 30 inches (76cm) apart, compared with 29 inches on some other budget carriers. But this does not mean the sardine-squeezing has reached its limit: RECARO is working on designs for cabins whose seating is at different heights, which could provide more legroom, or add seats—guess which option airlines are likely to take. Airbus has patented a bicycle-style seat on which air passengers would perch rather than sit.
As they battle for business-class travellers, who provide most of their profits, long-haul carriers have made seats in that cabin as plush as first-class ones used to be, says James Park, a designer of aircraft interiors. So although Etihad is planning to offer its wealthiest flyers three-room suites, many airlines are scrapping first class and making business class bigger and plusher. Travelling executives will be able to appear relatively frugal, by flying business while enjoying the comforts of first. Never has there seemed such a gap between those who turn left and those who turn right on entering the plane.