The Bottom Line on Airline Reclining Rage

By Scott Spangler on September 15th, 2014

There are many ways to look at the recent spate of passenger confrontations resulting from one reclining into the knees and face of another. The confrontations have been occurring for years, ever since the airline MBAs started shrinking the seat pitch, the distance between rows, and width. They are news now because the stories are sensational and easy to report, and they seem to be more common because flight crews are tired of dealing with these confrontations, so they are resolving them with unscheduled landings, which shares the physical pain with everyone on board and the economic pain with everyone who flies the airlines.

Others, such as the New York Times, has examined one of the underlying causes of airline reclining rage. “The Problem With Reclining Airplane Seat Design” provides the specifics on what any airline passenger has known for years: today’s airline seats are not designed to accommodate the full range of human dimensions. It introduces us to Dr. Kathleen Robinette, an Oklahoma State University professor who was the lead author of 2002’s Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource. A U.S. Air Force project conducted with a consortium of 35 organizations, it measured the bodies of 4,431 people in America, the Netherlands, and Italy.

The report has become the go-to source for seat designers who, the article said, assume that their designs will accommodate almost everyone if they dimension it for a man in the 95th percentile. Being vertically over endowed, I’m in the 5 percent the designers exclude, in league with women. While seats short me in leg room, females are shorted on width. Collecting dimensions from the world’s airlines, shows that the average airline seat is 17-18 inches wide, adequate for the 17.15-inch span of the 95th percentile North American male. The 95th percentile North American female measures 19.72 inches. Exacerbating the airline space conflict is the reality that the shoulder width of most humans is greater than their hips.

All of these details really don’t matter when we’ve been into the tube after being patted, wanded, and radiated by TSA. We want relief, room to let our blood circulate freely so we don’t have to worry about losing a leg—or our lives—to deep vein thrombosis. And we want it at no additional charge. That charge would be the difference between an economy coach seat, which is typically 17-18 inches wide on a 30-inch pitch, with a first/business class seat, which offers 2 more inches of width and 5-7 inches more pitch. We shouldn’t hold our collective breath for the airlines to give us more room for free, but we should expect the MBAs in charge to factor in the cost of unscheduled landings into the prices we all pay to fly uncomfortably.

Ultimately, airline seat conflicts stem from the competing bottom lines of the seat sellers, who are determined to maintain their profit margins, and the seat sitters, who want or need to get someplace quickly and economically. For the 99th percentile of Americans whose income hasn’t kept pace with the remaining 1 percent, all we can do is live with it, or turn to the time and money equation offered by alternate means of transportation. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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One Response to “The Bottom Line on Airline Reclining Rage”

  1. Albert Perez Says:

    It is true I have experienced some situation where two passengers started to argue because one was reclining his seat too much. I think airliners shall reduce the angle of reclination to a standard level. At the end in airplane is not possible to have a huge amount of space.

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