Feeling squeezed in your airline seat? Not your imagination

A long flight on a coach airline seat can result in a torturous, uncomfortable day and it’s not your imagination, it’s the seat that’s probably the main problem.

While an economist in Norway is recommending that airlines charge overweight passengers more and lighter ones less, the "pay as you weigh" plan is a bit complicated by the fact that airlines really are squeezing more seats into slightly smaller planes. Also, those seats are designed improperly, according to experts. 

Kathleen Robinette, who studied body measurements for the U.S. Air Force, and who is an expert in anthropometrics (the study of the measurement of humans), told MSN News that part of the problem with today's cramped airplanes is that the seats are just designed wrong. Add to that the shrinking size of airplanes and the industry’s efforts to cram more people into smaller planes, and it makes for a tight situation.

"[The designers of airline seats] started out with male hip width, assuming men were bigger, and that was the wrong assumption. Then they also assumed that hip width was the widest part of the seat, but actually, when the person sits in the seat, it's not just their butt that's in the seat," she said with a laugh. "It's their whole body."

Ideally, airline seats should be up to 8 inches wider to make them "the width that you really need so that people sitting next to each other side by side in a row won't actually be touching each other or having their arms in their neighbors' lap." Airplane seats can be anywhere from 19 inches across, as measured from arm rest to arm rest, to a slim 17 inches, Robinette said.  The ideal measurement is 25 inches.

Passengers end up trying to get more room by leaning against the window or into the aisle, which usually results in being nudged by the food and beverage carts along the way. Add to that ever-decreasing legroom as well as less room between seats and welcome to an aisle full of arms dangling and passengers’ legs touching.

Admittedly, we have gained height and heft overall. In 2002, the CDC released a study of trends in height and weight since 1960. We've gained a hefty chunk of weight over the past few decades — including bottoms that are 15 inches bigger on average. But the space between seats and the insides of airlines have shrunk.

"The seat is a revenue generator," Jeff Luedeke, a vice president at airline seat manufacturer TIMCO Aerosystems, maker of seats aboard Allegiant, Japan Airlines, RwandAir, and Spirit Airlines, told CNN. "Normally if you look at a 737 or A320 there are three seats on each side. If you wanted maximum comfort you could do two on each side — and make the seats a lot wider. But with the reduced head count the operational costs don't work out."

In regards to the "pay as you weigh" plan, a spokesperson for American Airlines wouldn’t comment but deferred to a representative for Airlines for America (formerly known as the Air Transport Association of America), who said, "We believe individual airlines, like other companies in a competitive marketplace, should be free to price and sell their products as they choose according to the market and their own policies." That said, "We are not aware of any U.S. airline having adopted such a pricing scheme."

The answer to comfier seating could be as simple as advertising, Robinette said. With airlines in hot competition with each other, allowing passengers to buy their tickets based on the size of their seats could be a worthwhile investment and a solution for both airlines and passengers.

"I think if we start measuring seats and start publishing the seat measurements and start including that in our airline seat searches so that the consumer can be an informed consumer, that airlines will be able to make money even if they have fewer seats in their planes. In my opinion, that's the way it could change," Robinette said.

In the meantime, Canada's WestJet Airlines Ltd. has been "quietly rolling out some strategic changes to its fleet," according to the Financial Post, which reported that the airline has changed "the cabin configuration fairly dramatically to add a new class of seating, all the while packing in more travelers in the rest of its planes."

Happy travels might mean paying more one way or another for a better, different seat.

Related: Airline fares: Pay according to your weight?

For more Travel news, see MSN Travel

For more business news, see MSN Money

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