Why trickle down ergonomics is a flawed theory for aircraft seats


Someone recently made the following statement on Twitter: “A rising tide raises all ships. This is why better business class seats will lead to better coach seats.”

We could call this theory “trickle down ergonomics”, and, in all due respect to our friend on social media, it is deeply flawed.

It’s true that innovative aircraft interiors often get their start in the business aviation world, and that versions of these products regularly make the leap to business class and first class cabins. And certainly, one can’t discount the fact that airlines apply their learning to other aspects of the passenger experience, including in economy class.

But better seats in business class do not equate to better seats in coach.

In fact, says John Walton, director of data at flight ratings, search and data site Routehappy, an increase in personal space at the front of the plane is usually correlated to a decrease in personal space down the back. Routehappy is the only flight search or comparison site that highlights the difference between the myriad kinds of business class seats while passengers are searching for flights.

“Airlines converting older Cradle Sleeper or Angle Flat seating to Full Flat beds or Full Flat Pods with direct aisle access are always looking to optimize space on board,” Walton says, outlining part of Routehappy’s premium seat classification spectrum. “Often, that will be at the expense of lavatory or galley space if only front cabins are being refitted, but when the whole bird goes in for a refurb, economy passengers get it in the neck — or, more accurately, the knee.”

For instance, many carriers offer luxurious accommodations in the premium cabins of their new Boeing 777-300ERs and Boeing 787s, but the ‘back of the bus’ is still packed to the gills, with super-snug 10-abreast seating configurations in the former and 9-abreast in the latter. The CEOs of some carriers pat themselves on the back for being able to pack in more seats, and further drive down unit costs.

To wit, as Air Canada’s Airbus A319s are shifted from mainline to the carrier’s new low-cost unit Rouge, Air Canada customers are starting to refer to losing three inches of pitch as “being Rouged”.

“Airlines can get away with it because passengers don’t know about it,” Routehappy’s Walton explains. “One of the really valuable benefits Routehappy Scores bring to passengers is that all the cabin amenities are presented clearly and in a way that they can compare. Some flyers will choose the bread and circuses of inflight entertainment over three inches of extra legroom and up to two inches of extra elbow room. But research and our real-world reviewers tell us that, when flyers have a choice about seat size, that’s the most important factor.”

Save for the fact that in-seat IFE is now generally a standard offering on long-haul aircraft – and that this benefit helps to distract economy class passengers’ brains from the pain of tight seats for a little while – we should call a spade a spade. Flying in high-density economy class cabins is nowhere near high flying (with the exception of those travelers who get stoned before flying…you know who you are).

What is apparent, however, is that a “trickle up ergonomics” effect is in play at some carriers. Unlike the economic model that espouses the belief that benefitting the poor directly will equate to overall societal gains, trickle up ergonomics in aircraft cabins means that we can expect to see more high-density business class configurations. Gosh, that sounds almost like an oxymoron doesn’t it?

But it’s happening.

We’re tracking this trend closely because we’re curious if we’ll see business class cabins collectively devolve over time. As more and more airlines abandon first class, as we predicted to CNN last year, business class is becoming the new first; premium economy and economy plus-type products are becoming the new business (for business travelers on a budget); while economy is, well, travel class.

Philippine Airlines (PAL) is receiving some nice attention this week, after announcing that its new Airbus A330s will offer a business class cabin with 18 EADS Sogerma ‘Equinox’ Full Flat seats. See the picture above and the video below to appreciate what Equinox “high-density business class” really means. Eschewing an embedded IFE system, PAL has instead opted to offer the OnAir Play wireless IFE solution on the widebodies, which also offer OnAir’s mobile and Wi-Fi services.

PAL is certainly not a top tier carrier, so suggesting its decision to offer Equinox and wireless IFE is some sort of bellwether for how aircraft interiors and IFE will evolve would be a major stretch. With that said, we also can’t ignore the fact that if PAL is successful, we can expect more legacy carriers to follow suit.

We already know that the long-haul, low-cost crowd are getting into this frame of mind. For instance, AirAsia X sells a premium seat with regular economy service on its A330s, notes Walton.

“Apart from Air New Zealand’s Spaceseat (which the airline decided not to install on its new Dreamliners or refurbished 777-200 aircraft) it’s been three years since there was any innovation in the international premium economy space,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see airlines starting to offer angle flat seating in premium economy cabins within the next five years, and I’d see flyers jumping for them — especially business travelers whose travel policies ban increasing business class fares for increasingly spacious business class seats.”

Imagine that – passengers in a premium economy middle cabin feeling grateful for their angled flat seat! Flying regularly in knee-crushing coach class on long-haul flights can do that to a person. Make you feel grateful for any level of relief.

But hey, when it comes to seat ergonomics, the trickling trend is up. Whether or not this is good news for us little people down the back will depend on how airlines price their premium economy seats going forward.