The Issue with ‘Flying Buses’

Last year, flyers and airline industry alike locked horns over The Knee Defender, a device that prevented passengers from reclining their seats; but, 2015 seems to be all about skinnier seats and fattening airlines bottom lines, as more and more news stories are coming out about how airlines are finding ways to cram passengers into those flying metal cans known as airplanes.

I can cite you a handful of examples. From the pointy end of the plane, where Cathay Pacific is taking out their First class cabins on some routes, despite nearly always being full, according to cabin crew I spoke with, in favour of additional seats in Premium Economy and Economy; to Cebu Air’s ‘flying buses’, an all-economy budget airline that has recently began flying from their home base of Manila in the Philippines to Sydney, Australia.

In the US, American Airlines are installing 10 seats across in Economy, up from nine, which leaves seat width down to 17 inches from 18.5 inches. While Emirates, Air France, Air Canada and Air New Zealand have all made the change; thankfully, Delta and United have refused, calling 17 inches too tight for long trips overseas.
For Australian International flights, Qantas offers passengers up to 17.7 inches, and Virgin Australia’s offering 17 – 18 inches, depending on aircraft type.

Another move being adopted by airlines, particularly in America, are lightweight metal framed seating, complete with super thin padding to cut weight per passenger and save on fuel; and in 2012, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary suggested standing instead of sitting on planesUm… seriously? Yes. A Chinese airline has also been investigating standing seating options.

It gets worse. At a recent aircraft interiors convention in Hamburg, Airbus released their latest seating layout for the A380. The new designs for the world’s largest passenger airliner say the design will fit an extra seat into each row in economy (pictured above), thus giving airlines the option to have up to 11 seats per row, up from ten currently. While seat width allegedly will stay the same, at 18-inches for economy class, those dreaded middle seats will become harder to avoid.

Airbus’ executive vice president, strategy and marketing, Dr. Kiran Rao says with Airbus offering the option of 10- or 11-abreast configurations on the A380 it’s all about giving airlines choice. “With Boeing, if you want comfort, you don’t get [the] economics; if you want the economics, you don’t get comfort.”

A380 seat

Would you want to be a window seat passenger on the new 11-breast A380 configuration? | Credit: Jason Rabinowitz

A news story on USA Today quotes Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, an advocacy group for air travellers, as saying; “Airlines are aggressively reducing seat and passenger space to squeeze more revenue out passengers, despite health and safety being threatened.”

Qantas First Class

Now that’s personal space! Onboard Qantas’ First Class A380.

I need a little personal space no matter what situation I’m in. I’m usually pretty good and request a seat with no one next to me or upgrade – to me, the extra space is worth the cost, but more and more often this isn’t possible because flights are full.

I can last three hours in a full plane, but as that fourth hour rolls around I can feel my temper flaring and I begin to act out by fighting to get as much armrest as I can from the passenger beside me; God forbid they’re touching me, then my blood begins to boil.
On a flight to Malaysia last year, sitting in a cramped AirAsia seat that couldn’t recline and with no air conditioning, I nearly spat the dummy. Does anyone else feel like this on a long-haul flight?

Living in Australia isn’t the ideal situation for a person with a case of wanderlust coupled with my need for personal space. That is, a country where the closest International destination is 3.5 hours away, Asia is six, North America is fifteen and Europe is twenty-two hours.


A few weeks ago, I was reading how Boeing are planning on downsizing the toilet facilities in favour of 14 extra seats.
How are they going to make the bathrooms smaller?,” I wondered as I weighted up my own experiences using the in-flight loo, and how the thought had crossed my mind to pre-unbutton and expose cheek before backing the MAC truck – that is, my bum -into the lavatory.
Okay, admittedly I’m not quite that desperate, but on my recent domestic flight with Qantas I did note that I could barely turn a full revolution in the bathroom without hitting something.

Similarly, the soon-to-be-launched Boeing 737 MAX 200 is adding smaller toilets and reducing the kitchen galley size to make way for more seats. Currently, Ryanair has 100 of the planes on order, said to be entering service in 2017, providing that Boeing fit the aircrafts with an even 200 seats, up from the 189 seats on the blueprints.

With all the downsizing of leg space, armrests and bathroom size, yet expanding of waistlines and height (genetically, each generation is getting taller), it’s got me thinking that air travel may soon become too uncomfortable and alternative travel methods – road trips, train travel, or cruises – may again become the favoured option.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the golden age of flying.


Speaking of space, why is it we often hear about leg room but rarely about seat pitch, that is the ability to recline your chair. Each row of Economy seating used to have a standard 32 or 33 inches of pitch, today some airlines are removing it (I’m looking at you AirAsia and Jetstar) or limiting it (United is down to 30 inches and Boeing’s soon-to-be-launched 737 MAX 200 will be just 28 inches).

With seat width shrinking, airlines are trying to distract us with better technology. WiFi, larger entertainment screens, more entertainment options, or seating layouts that ‘appear’ to offer more room are being adopted to distract passengers.
There are some airlines doing it right. Japanese airline All Nippon Airways (ANA) have partnered with Toyota to produce an ergonomic seat that will offer greater support to help passengers maintain a relaxing posture and reduce muscle fatigue. Don’t expect to see them on any upcoming long-haul flights, as the airline has no plans to outfit International flights. Also, the seat width is only 17.5 inches, with a pitch of 31 inches; both lower than industry recommendations.


Air New Zealand has launched their Skycouch (pictured above) that allows three economy seats to be converted into a flatbed, and it’s said the Skycouch can fit two people, and even been dubbed “Cuddle Class”. Seats come at standard pricing for the first two seats, and the third shared seat for half price.
China Airlines offer a similar product called ‘Family Couch’, or Air Astana’s ‘Economy Sleeper’ that offers a row of three with a pillow, duvet, amenity kit, and priority check-in.

Lufthansa has another solution for those wanting a bit of space, but also value leg room. Lufthansa have created slimmer seats that are made of mesh fibre, instead of foam padding and changed the design of the magazine and tray layout, to give passengers extra leg room.
While a great idea for the tall, it doesn’t stop people from tapping their Inflight Entertainment screens on the back of the chairs hard (or repetitively if playing a game) and disturbing you, as my seat companion experienced on a recent Cathay Pacific flight.

There are plenty of new seating design options. My favourite design has to be The Meerkat Seat Concept, from Hong Kong-based Paperclip Design. A clever tiered armrest, carefully concealed extras (like a vanity mirror and ‘pocket’) and tablet stand moulded into the fold-down table; it’s an interesting idea that I hope some airlines will consider.

Other airlines have adopted ‘Economy Comfort’, not quite Premium Economy but with more space or perks than Economy.
US carrier Delta Airlines offers Economy Comfort with priority boarding, 50% additional recline on their Economy seats, an additional four inches of leg room, and adjustable headrests and footrests.
Hawaiian Airlines offers an Economy Comfort cabin on select long-haul flights – like their Sydney to Honolulu service – which offers guests extra leg room, priority boarding, personal power outlet, upgraded meal, complimentary “Unlimited TV & More” entertainment pack, comfort kit  and pillow + blanket.
For those who still want more, Premium Economy may be an option as the price difference between Economy and Premium can cost only a few hundred, versus an upgrade to Business costing in the thousands.

Are airlines continuing to cut space and seat width because we cry for cheaper tickets? The thing is, standard prices aren’t changing.
Sure, you have your Ryanair’s, AirAsia‘s and Tiger Airway’s who “make travel accessible to all” – AKA: no frills, no service, no comfort, but rock bottom prices – but my usual Qantas airfare between Adelaide and Melbourne have near doubled in the four years I’ve lived in Melbourne with a flexible ticket costing $300 as opposed to its former $175. Even discount tickets used to be $90 and now they’re $120. Then, there’s an airport charge, a service charge, oh, and would you like to pay extra to offset your carbon emissions? No thanks.

Is it time for the aviation industry to set a minimum seat (and bathroom) standard?
Is it time for customers to stand up for their right to have a little comfort on their next flight?

I say yes.

What do you think:

Should the aviation industry set minimum seat standards?

Would you pay a little extra for a little more comfort?

Which airline is the most comfortable?


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Want to read more articles about the seating squeeze?

Is it time for minimum airline seat standardson USA Today

Skinnier Seats on More Crowded Planes‘ in the Wall Street Journal

Shrinking airline seats spark health concerns‘ on The Detroit News

World’s most cramped Airbus A330 to take flight from Sydney‘ on The Australian Business Review

Airbus proposes more seats on A380‘ on GulfNews Aviation

Airbus expects 11-abreast A380 to attract a new breed of customer‘ – on Runway Girl Network

10 things airlines are doing to make flying coach more comfortable‘ on Business Insider Australia

Is More Entertainment Worth Less Legroom on Your Flight‘ in the Wall Street Journal

As coach seats shrink, these new designs could save your sanity‘ on Digital Trends

Flying into the future‘ on The Economist

4 ways the aviation industry hopes to distract you from cabin crush” on CNN

EasyJet to squeeze six more seats on its aircraft‘ on Telegraph Travel

Will slim seats pitched at 27 inches be used in 195-seat A320?‘ on Runway Girl Network


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  • Reply
    July 4, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    I’m in total agreement with lasting max. 3 hours before the incringement of my personal space starts to make my blood boil. Unfortunately, it often hits me at the start of the flight depending on the size and behaviour/lack of etiquette my seat neighbour has. I fly 4 times a month domestically with work and it really sucks sometimes.

    • Reply
      July 11, 2015 at 1:13 am

      Owch! I hope you manage to grab yourself a comfortable seat for all those flights.
      Good luck with your next flight. Here’s hoping your neighbour is a good one!

  • Reply
    I Flew Thai Airways Economy (and really liked it!) - Bitten by the Travel Bug
    October 23, 2017 at 10:00 am

    […] While I do try to upgrade myself using frequent flyer points, that’s not always possible so I’ve been on the hunt for an airline whose Economy class product doesn’t leave me feeling like I’m on a school bus. […]

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