Bjorn’s Corner: The seating dilemma

By Bjorn Fehrm

By Bjorn Fehrm

By Bjorn Fehrm

04 September 2015, © Leeham Co: One of the hottest areas of modern airline aviation is the passenger experience and especially the seating. There are people who are specialists on the subject like Runway Girl Network; I will not try to duplicate their work here on my Corner. But I follow the subject in detail as it touches on our work of creating apples-to-apples airline comparison conditions, our Normalized cabins or LOPAs as its also called (Layout Of Passenger Amenities).

As I observe the debate on more and more cramped economy seating, I can’t but feel the whole debate is revolving around the wrong dimensions. The debate is focusing on seat width but it is a seat width which is not the primary one that affects a passenger’s comfort. Before being accused of trying to confuse with facts, let me explain.

How seats are measured

To understand what would be a better measurement of comfort than today’s seat width, let’s look at how a seat for a single aisle or a dual aisle aircraft is made and measured. Figure 1 shows the most common type, the one that is used in the single aisles and the nine abreast new twins. It combines three seat cushions/backs with four armrests into a seat triplet.

Seating annotated

Figure 1. Economy seat triplet from 737 MAX with measurements. Source: Boeing and Leeham Co. Click to see better.

The confusion starts with the seat measurement which is used in the industry to denote seat width. It is the seat cushion width, the measurement A in Figure 1. But what everyone complains about is the rubbing of shoulders, which is dependent on measurement B.

Measurement B, what I will call the “seating width,” includes part of the armrests for each passenger. The standard way of making a seat triplet with, say, 17 or 18 inch seat cushions is to combine that with four armrests, each measuring two inches wide. As long as the armrests stay at the standard two inches one could use today’s measurement, as the important shoulder width scales with the cushion width.

But they don’t. Marketing has gotten hold of seating and told the cabin people they want the magic mantra of “our seats are 18 inches” to communicate to the public and customers. The result is more and more configurations with 18 inch seat cushions paired with one-and-a-half or even one inch armrests. The triplet takes only 58 or 60 inch width instead of the normal 62, but they sure are “18 inch seats.”

By now it should be clear the debate is discussing the wrong thing. Seat width should be about seat shoulder width and the marketers bragging about 18 inch seats would have to concede that “our seats have (only) 19 inch seat shoulder width”. But it doesn’t stop there. The seats we have today are un-equal as well; the designs need to change to give each passenger equal lateral living space.

Equal passenger comfort

The middle passenger in a triplet gets less living space. He gets 1 + 17 +1 =19 inch “seating width” if the armrests are share amicably. The window passenger gets 1 + 17 +2 and the aisle passenger gets 2 + 17 + 1, Figure 1. This means both get 20 inch seating width. These passengers also have the benefit of additional free space at the window and aisle. So things are very un-equal in today’s standard seats.

What would be needed is a triplet offering 20 inches to all three passengers with 17 inch seat cushions or 21 inches with 18. This would mean the central armrests should be minimum 2.5 inches each with the outer at two inch. With 17 inch seat cushions, this gives 60 inch triplets; with 18 inch cushions, the results is 63 inches. Even with the dreaded 17 inch cushions, this gives each passenger 20 inch seating width (i.e. shoulder space), the same as today’s 18 inch seats gives the least fortunate passenger.

This all ignores other measurements which are important, like set pitch (distance between seat rows); this is of course equally important.


Today’s seat comfort discussion is a hot topic, too hot to be conducted with the wrong arguments.

Reading the trip reports it is clear that what matters to passengers in cramped economy seats is more shoulder-to-shoulder space than not getting the bum to fit the seat cushion. I would venture that the seat pitch is also more important than if the seat cushion is 17 or 18 inches as long as 20 inches of shoulder width would be provided.

We can conclude that there are probably two measurements which are more important than the one used in today’s seating debate. It’s time to change the argumentation to the right measurements.

44 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: The seating dilemma

  1. Please check my letter to the editor this next AW&ST (assuming they print it).

    Best regards,


  2. Comparing the interior cabin width of the 787 with the standard configuration of the 737 triplet seat in figure 1 above, I conclude that the a 9 abreast 787 has equal shoulder-to-shoulder width as a short range 737. Is that correctly understood?

    And this also goes for the A320 which will have the same shoulder-to-shoulder width as the a350 in a 9 abreast configuration.

    Both the a320 and a350 will have one more inch of shoulder-to-shoulder width then 737/787 no matter how creative seat designers are.

    Given the wider Airbus cabin width, would it therefore, in an apples to apples comparison, be more correct to give the Airbus aircrafts a seat pinch of one inch less than Boeing aircraft? In other words an Airbus configured with seats that have 21 inch shoulder-to-shoulder width at a seat pinch of 30 inches, is comparable to a Boeing seat that has 20 inch and 31 inch respectively?

    Boeing optimizes for slim and tall men, while Airbus favors the muscular but shorter of us. 🙂

    • “Boeing optimizes for slim and tall men, while Airbus favors the muscular but shorter of us.”

      Only true if Boeing would recommend a few extra inches of pitch on their aircraft. 😉

  3. I agree that the simple seat width figure is inadequate and that it would be preferable for seat unit design to be made fairer to all. My 2 takes though are:
    1) is shoulder width the main issue for everyone or is this more a man issue than a woman issue, with seat cushion width being relatively more important for women?
    2) for me the key issue is armrest space (well, and pitch). After that cushion width is actually more important to me than shoulder width as I prefer to be able to change position at intervals during the flight, which a narrow cushion doesn’t allow.

  4. There actually is a “comfort space” extended by a range of parameters in an 3++ dimensional cube:
    seating grid width, depth, height ( seat pad as well as backrest height and inclination). Higher off the ground seating takes less floor area than lower seating. Seating that has walls on each end ( like 6/8seat train compartments ) is different to less confined arrangements.

    compare to stairs. step advance + step height has an optimum for the average person at sa + 2*sh ~= 26″

    • Uwe, higher than average seat heights tend to push your shoulders into the upper fuselage which curves dramatically towards you, resulting in less shoulder room.

    • You are correct seat bottoms 1.5 inches higher than average Y class seats would create more leg room the angle of attack so to speak is different also nothing worse than a short seat back that creates the lolling head effect as with US Air B737 300/400 fleet thankfully now retired the most uncomfortable aircraft EVER. AJK

  5. I think “if the armrests are shared amicably.” is theory only.

    The A330/340 economy class has decent armrest for all. Something that would be statistically irrelevant if there weren’t 1500 in service everywhere.

    I think the seating width discussion is interesting because one of the OEM has the narrower cabins per seat and lets not forget the comfort impact of narrow aisles! However there’s no way back / out and passengers are so open and vocally communicating it in such large numbers:

    The only thing to do is make it more complicated and flush the public with new numbers & insights. Harry Truman put the finger on these situations long ago:

    and hope it goes away somehow..

    • Pay attention (first link) to the man in the left window seat (Brussels Airlines A330, 32K). He probably is charged extra for the front row (“Flex&Fast”) 🙁

  6. It´s a real shame, that we have to discuss the seating situation as a health issue. People all over the world are getting taller, bigger und heavier and the industry is talking about putting more and more seats in.

    One day in the not so distant future we will discover,that we don´t fit into the seats anymore, and even if we do so, it will a hurt on you . There is no survival room left,the airtraveller is losing inch by inch. Flying in coach will be an ever growing painful event.

    During future boarding processes„suspicious“overweight persons will be forced to squeeze their bodies through an innovative passenger Check-Box, like they have today for carry-on baggage. in the waiting area in front of all other travellers.If they fit easily, they a good, otherwise they will be excluded from air-transportation or forced to upgrade their ticket!

    It is also a safety issue.In case of an emergency, people can´t get of the plane fast enough,because quite a few passengers got stuck with their big bellies between the seats and in the tiny lavs too!

    • “During future boarding processes„suspicious“overweight persons will be forced to squeeze their bodies through an innovative passenger Check-Box, like they have today for carry-on baggage.”

      ROFL³ 😉

    • Yes, passengers are getting bigger and seats are getting smaller, but we must remember that coach fares (adjusted for inflation) have also decreased over time. In fact, keeping those fares low is one reason why airlines are trying to squeeze in more seats. I would argue that on a “$ per cubic cm of space” basis, coach passengers are actually paying less today than ever before.

      People complain about the lack of space but history has shown that they aren’t willing to pay for it. Sure, a few will pay extra to fly on Singapore or Cathay with their 9-abreast 777s, but most will choose Emirates or Air Canada with 10-abreast because they’re cheaper. Also, let’s not forget the growing number of people (particularly in the developing world) who can’t afford the relative comfort of Singapore but are able to pay for the sardine can of Air Asia. In those cases, the tighter Y configuration is catering to a new market segment which would not have flown otherwise.

      The fact is, you can fly in the same comfort today that you had in Y back in 1980 provided you’re willing to pay the equivalent (inflation-adjusted) amount. It’s just that today we call that cabin Premium Economy. I think over time we’re going to see more and more segmentation of the cabins to give people more options to pay for what they want. Perhaps we’ll end up with something like this on a 787:

      Economy – 17″ width, 30″ pitch, 9-abreast for those wanting the cheapest fare

      Economy Plus – 17″ width, 34″ pitch, 9-abreast for those wanting more legroom for a small surcharge

      Premium Economy – 19.5″ width, 38″ pitch, 7-abreast with better food/drink for those wanting a premium experience for 1.5-2x the base fare

      Business – pods/beds/etc. for those with an expense account or big budgets

      To some extent this is already happening. American offers 17″/31″/10-abreast in Y on their 77W, but 18″/36″/9-abreast is available in Y+ for an extra 15%. Some will choose to pay the additional cost, others won’t. Considering J is going for around 4x the cost of Y on the AA flights I checked, there’s probably demand for a true Premium Economy product in there as well.

      • I’m sick of the cop-out excuse about fares being low.

        Airlines are squeezing economy to make room for their profits. Simple as that. They could all offer 18″ seats and 32″ pitch as standard. But then there wouldn’t be room on the airplane for Premium Economy, which is much easier to up-sell after ensuring an unpleasant experience in economy.

        Also, please don’t put Emirates and Air Canada in the same bracket. While they may have the same seat width, they don’t have the same seat pitch, catering and in-flight entertainment.

        In any event, give it a few years. Once there’s enough A350s and B787s flying around, I suspect the airlines flying A350s and A380s will more easily collect the higher-yielding passengers.

  7. Seat width is more important in two areas –
    1. In a B737 where 6 rows are installed in a fuselage (B707) that should only occupy 5 seats. As a result, the world’s most popular plane means that aisle passengers get their elbows banged when the food trolley makes and appearance. It also means that it is physically painful when 3 grown men sit together and try to eat simultaneously. What makes this situation worse is that many B737 operators go the extra mile and have seat pitches of 30 inches as well.
    2. In a B777 with that extra row of seats. See comment 1 above.

    If you do not need to eat a meal with a knife and fork, then narrow is OK. The new 787 with an extra row also short-changes us fools.

  8. Airbus has done an incredible marketing job with seat widths. The A350 has less than 1/2 an inch per seat wider vs 787, doubt the average person could perceive this difference. It would be interesting to know if the shoulder to shoulder is the same. Seat pitch is becoming a big issue, I have kids and friends that simply don’t fit in some tight seat pitches, their knees are hitting the seat in front of them before the seat is reclined!

    • Sorry. But it’s not imperceptible. Especially if you’re sitting in the middle of a triplet where that half-inch to each side really starts to matter if both your neighbours are strangers.

      The Boeing Company: helping strangers get physical since 1965.

      • Sorry, but a half inch wider seat bottom is imperceptible.

  9. Between the removal of comfortable seats and seatspace by airlines and airplane manufacturers…..
    And the government/TSA making the terminal experience also very distasteful (some flights and airports worse than others)….
    Plus having to arrive significantly early for the terminal experience…
    Well, discretionary airline travel (vacations, etc) has suffered, and will continue to decline.
    Pursuit of short term profitability therefore hurting long term wellness/health of the industry abounds in American business culture…..
    Yes, I know it is a dog eat dog industry, and all that, but “plenty of passengers” seems to be taken for granted by the industry.

    • Except that the stats don’t bear that out. Airline passenger numbers just keep going up. People aren’t cutting back on discretionary travel. If anything, the lower fares that come with tighter seats increases business because if makes air travel affordable to people at the lower end of the market. Look at the massive success of Spirit, Ryanair, Air Asia, etc. if you want proof.

      The problem is that there really is no alternative to air travel in many cases. Yes, there are cars and trains, but they’re really not practical if you’re trying to get from London to Majorca or Chicago to Miami for a few days in the sun.

      • Think about it. “More people are flying than ever” and ” more people are choosing not to fly” are NOT mutually exclusive.
        Be aware, there is a large population INCREASE going on.
        ….and for a lot of folks, staying local is an option!

      • You’re right. More people flying. And notice they aren’t choosing the supposedly “full-service” airlines. You see, people will tolerate abuse if there’s a discount involved. They won’t find such abuse very palatable when legacy carriers like Air Canada and United and British Airways decide to offer Ryanair standards with 17″ wide seats and 30″ pitch (as in the back rows of BA’s 787-8s).

        The legacy carriers have to start deciding if they want to give up yield or market share.

  10. Some would consider giving all of the armrests space to the middle passenger good etiquette. I think I agree with that as well. The middle seat deserves some relief. The window and aisle seat people can shift their positions more comfortably to create space.

  11. As highlighted here and there, it is less the width of the seat that the overall effect of all these seats should be a debate! As I already mentioned, how to qualify the customer experience on Air Canada flight from Vancouver to London (or Hong Kong) or Montreal and Paris with 777 300ER (click on the international flight configuration)? A picture is worth a thousand ills!

  12. What many seem to forget is that when Emirates introduced 10 abreast seating on their 777s, they offered a relatively generous 34-inch Pitch. AFAIK, that’s still the standard for EK’s 777s. The problem with 9 abreast 787s, is that the operators all seem to offer no more than 31 – 32 inches of pitch at 9 abreast on their 787s. Although the seats on 9 abreast 787s can be 0.2 inches wider and the aisles one inch wider than today’s 777s at 10 abreast – which btw is about the same width standard as today’s 737s – passengers flying, say, 10 -12 hrs in economy class on the 787, won’t have the “luxury” of the extra pitch offered, for example on EK’s 777s, in order to “compensate” for the narrow 737 sub-standard seat width.

    One should also keep in mind that Emirates is “losing” up to two rows of 10 abreast seats on their 777s due to their “generous” 34-inch pitch standard (i.e. 30 rows x 2 inches = 60 inches; or about 2 rows of seats; or about 20 seats vs. a configuration where the 32 inch pitch “standard” is used instead).

    With the 7E7/787 Boeing seemed to be all hung up on beating the A330 in comforts at nine abreast with slightly wider seats. Clearly, Boeing wanted/expected Airbus to respond with an enhanced A330 – which Airbus initially did — and not an all new airplane having about the same seat width in nine abreast as the A330 has in 8 abreast. IMJ, Boeing managers seems to have believed that Airbus wouldn’t be able to respond with an all new airframe so soon after having done the A380 — or was this part of the strategy of taking Airbus to the WTO in order to make it as difficult as possible for Airbus to go for an all new aircraft?

    Once you’ve committed to the size of a fuselage cross-section, you’re basically done. I happen to believe that if Boeing could do the 787 all over again, they would have increased the 787 fuselage cross-section to about the same size as that of the A350. Now, they have to make the best out of the situation. By widening the 777X by 4 inches at the armrest level, the 787 and 777 will have exactly the same seat-bottom width (i.e. 17.2″), armrest width (i.e. 2″) and aisle width (i.e. 18″) at respectively 9 and 10 abreast. Some people may say that’s exactly how Boeing has been planning this all the time, but I don’t think so.

    Randy Basseler even went as far as to outright lie about how wide the seats would be on a 9 abreast 787:

    In the image above, you can see that the cross section we chose for the Dreamliner allows us to provide a 9-abreast configuration – with the same kind of comfort levels you find in economy class in today’s airplanes such as in the 747 and the A330/A340. Basically, the very same triple seats used in the 747 could be used in a 9-abreast configuration in the 787.

    Per the A330 and 787 airport compatibility brochures in the links below, the armrest width, aisle width and seat bottom width for the A330 and 787 are – in a like-for-like, apple to apple configuration – 2 inches and 18 inches for armrest and aisle widths, respectively, and 18.25 inches (A330) vs. 17.2 inches (787) for seat bottom widths. NB: In the Airbus document, aisle width is 19″, thus I recalculated the seat bottom width using the same 18 inch aisle standard on the 787. It’s also worth mentioning that in order for the A350 cabin to have an 18 inch seat bottom width and 2 inch armrest width, the aisle widths can’t be larger than 17 inches, which BTW is the same standard as today’s 777s at 10 abreast (i.e. 17 inch seat bottom widths, 2 inch armrest widths and 17 inch wide aisles).

    Section 2-5-0

    Section 2.5

    A quick Google search will provide some not very flattering reviews of the seat width standard in economy class on the 787. Also, on YouTube, it’s not hard to find reviews comparing the 787 and the A350. I couldn’t find one, though, where the 787 came out on top – comfort-wise – in economy class.

  13. Talking about economy class seats we are referring to 80% of all airline passengers. I personally believe that on short haul flights (up to two hours) price and schedule are the deciding factors for a passenger choice. Although after a few minutes of flying a cramped cabin becomes almost a nightmare. But for longer stage lengths seat width and pitch are basic elements. I live in Brazil and flights from here take at least 8 hours to the USA and more than 10 hours to the main European centers. During those very long journeys you feel very well how soft and wide is a seat and if the pitch alows you to have leg room, to eat and to sleep. And how good is the access to the aisle (another very important factor). That is why when I take intercontinental economy flights I choose seven abreast B767s or eight abreast A330/A340s. Of course after checking their seat pitch in the airline layout. I had to abandon 777s after they became 10 abreast. It is good to write to you again on such an important issue.

  14. 20″ width, plus 1.5″ on each side at armrest level should be a minimum standard.
    103, 123, 143, 163, 183, 203, 223, 243

  15. I feel that the airlines are risking more than the loss of customer satisfaction. Most passengers accept that ‘all airline travel is the same’. The issue is becoming so tight in terms of seats and also the diminishing space all around the aircraft ie aisles and galleys that there is nowhere that you can stretch or counter the claustrophobia of your seat.

    I have witnessed proper air rage twice recently and although well dealt with there was a resigned response from the flight attendants suggesting that this is more than common nowadays.

    Further as toilets disappear to the back or front of the aircraft there is a need for more traffic if you have an in opportune seat and again the lack of galley space often means queueing on one side for a single toilet because it is not possible to access the others in the other aisle.
    All these efficiency savings in space come at a cost to passenger comfort and the working conditions of the flight attendants

    I have never understood why there could not be more differentiation of product ie business, premium economy, economy and steerage. this way airlines can squeeze more out for a premium and passengers have a more graduated offering.

    • For any commercial entity immediate survival is of higher importance than longtime competitive differentiation ( and the advantage thereof ) .
      That usually leads to races to the bottom as lack of staying power to survive the initial loss of customers is a given.

      Just watch the markets for agricultural produce: depression in market prices (currently pigs and milk here ) is answered with producing more of the same at increased stress levels.

  16. I am 6’4″ and my shoulders measure 22 inches across. That means that no matter how considerate I am, whoever sits next to me gets to share in the lack of seat width.

    My hips are narrower, but what I have found is having wiggle room lets you move the pressure points around for relief. Unfortunately the trend of using thinner and thinner cushions means you are more likely to have discomfort at pressure points.

    I do make sure to vote with my wallet (eg only go on 9 abreast 777), but sadly that won’t be enough to reverse the trends.

  17. Hi Scott, I’ve been wondering if there’s an industry-wide standard by which OEMs determine the number of seats in each cabin class when they quote their aircraft’s seat count for airline.

    For example, when Airbus says the A350-1000 can carry 350 pax in 3 classes, how many seats are allocated to each class? Does Airbus expect airlines to go 1-2-1 or 2-2-2 in business class, for instance?

    Similarly, when Boeing says the B777-9X can carry 400 pax in 3 classes, how did they come up with that number? Is there a particular number of seats or seat configuration that Boeing expects airlines to have in each class?

    If this has already been discussed in a previous article, please give me the link. Thanks.

    • Hi Mario,

      there is no standard what-so-ever for how the OEMs configure their reference cabins to mimic how an airline use their aircraft and there is no standards body which intend to do it. Airbus used to be the one which was a bit closer but Boeing has changed their seating standard now as well and from a seating perspective they are today both closer to a real airline seating than they used to be. Both do reference LOPAs with lie-flat Business class with direct aisle access since this summer. Airbus has introduced LOPAs with Premium economy, Boeing has pax + bag weights which are close to what the airlines use. Make your pick which one you think is more airline close.

  18. When considering a LOPA, what strikes me as a key factor measuring the congregate pax well-being is the EMF (Excuse-Me Factor). The lower the better. High EMF causes seat jamming (at boarding as well as at deplaning) and seat jamming is root cause for aisle jamming, both together being responsable for the abhorred SLOW AIRPORT TURN-AROUNDS.

    The worst case is the classic 3+3 : it has an EMF of 6 !!!. Replace by 1+3+1 and the EMF is lowered to 1/2 or 0.5 or one half : a world of a difference !!!

  19. Seatmakers, airlines and airframers use one of three different measurements of seat width depending on what point they’re attempting to make, as explained in April by John Walton’s Up Front column on Runway Girl Network, where he made the case for why the industry should agree on one standard measurement for width.

    (Note that “C” is the same width whether it’s at shoulder or seat pan.)

    • Thanks Mary,

      as I say you guys are the experts. My viewpoint are more the OEMs than the airlines or other measurements quoters and they use the width between armrest. And they have started to thin the armrests as a consequence to prove their points. A thinned armrest leaves them with a nicer between armrest value which is what they want.


  20. Whilst inconvenient flying sectors of four hours or less with minimal seat width is not that arduous, my gripe is with seat pitch.

    Of greated concern is cabin service, on a recent flight to Tenerife (Thompson) I was addressed by cabin crew trolley person as follows: Hello mate, what do you want, after explaining I didn’t know him & that I wasn’t his mate, I explained that I was Mr **** & the lady beside me was Mrs **** I asked for a sandwich & a drink for myself & wife, he insisted on some absurd sum for this most basic service which I declined, insisting that on a four hour plus fight I did not expect to pay for this most basic body requirement together with mediocre food or service. Suffice to say he caved in and thereafter maintained a more professional attitude. Strangely those serviced after me willingly parted with their hard earned cash without question.

    Cabin crew clearly sympathise with the service they offer I have therefore learnt to question poor service in a polite well considered out manner as I have to select carriers on flights on routings between six & twenty four hours, either plan one or two overnight stays or fly business direct if available on a respected carrier, preferably if available on an A380

    Forget premium economy, as someone has mentioned previously this equates to economy was some forty years ago, happy flying

  21. Equal floor area theory, if a nominal 20″ x 32″ is standard space on an A320, 767, or A350, the 737, 777, and 787 would need an extra inch of pitch to be considered an equal standard space, 19″ x 33″.

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