The End of the Reclining Airline Seat?

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If we want more space on a flight, shouldn't we just pay more?
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This summer, at least three flights have been grounded because of a flyer upset about a reclining seat. These events have triggered debates about when a decent person should even be allowed to recline.

Airfares have fallen by about 50 percent compared to 30 years ago, but innovations in airplane technology haven't translated into a more comfortable travel experience—at least in economy class. Why does it seem like the only innovation in the passenger seat has been to make it smaller?

Aviation correspondent for Condé Nast Traveler, Barbara Peterson, joins us to weigh in along with Bastian Schaefer, a designer who's the innovation manager with the airplane manufacturer Airbus.

Schaefer says that Airbus works with a worldwide network of companies to bring new innovations to the airline. When it comes to seat design, Airbus works with seat suppliers that are directly contracted by an airline.

“The trend in recent years has to been to slim them down—not the passengers of course—but the seats themselves to make them lighter,” says Peterson. “What’s happened is these slim lined seats also have the advantage, from the airline’s standpoint, that more of them can be put on a plane. That’s driving the trend.”

However, Peterson points out that an air travel is impacted by more than just a seat, and she adds that in-flight conflicts involving reclining seats can be linked partially to capacity.

“There’s a higher percentage of those seats being filled,” she says. “The load factor—which is the number of seats that are filled on average—has gone up from 56 percent right around the time of deregulation to more than 82 percent.”

While airlines may be cramming more passengers into planes, is there still a sort of in-flight etiquette to abide by?

“There really is no etiquette—I’ve never even seen any recommendations about how to behave on a plane, it’s just not part of the travel experience,” says Peterson. “Consequently, if you do want to recline your seat, you have a right to do that.”

In addition to safety videos, airlines may want to consider providing reclining tips to passengers, Peterson half jokes. However, hope for restoring civility may be on the way—Schaefer says that there are already seats available to airlines that don’t recline at all.

“These seats have a different angle of the neck rest so that the passenger is sitting more comfortable,” he says. “Seat suppliers are working on different concepts to solve this issue.”

Until seat suppliers can come up with a fix, Peterson points out that there are gadgets like the “Knee Defender” available, which helps stop reclining seats on airplanes.

“Sales have skyrocketed since these recent episodes,” she says “But the irony is most airlines will ban them precisely because it leads to this sort of rage in the air, and diversion of flights, which are very expensive for the airlines. This is not a good trend, and I think it’s pretty hostile to use those ‘knee defenders.’”

Going forward, Peterson says that designers need to keep the new realities of air travel—and plane capacity—in mind. The industry is slowly responding, and new innovations like convertible seats, which can be expanded or contracted, are currently available on the market.

“Then there’s something called the herringbone, which means that some people are facing forward and some people are facing back, which tends to create more of a sense of space,” she says. “There are things to do within the confines of the aircraft cabin, which isn’t exactly a great space to be working with.”