When travellers talk seats, especially in economy class, the conversation inevitably turns to legroom and gripes about how we're seeing less and less of it these days.
But as frequent flyers can attest, the real squeeze these days isn't at your knees, it's at your elbows.
The 'legroom is disappearing' myth
Don't fall for the line that as airlines add extra rows of seats, legroom gets the chop. It's not always so.
The latest airline seats are getting slimmer due to trends in design, materials and construction. And thinner seats can mean you actually have more room for your knees.
That's because the standard "seat pitch" measurement is from one point on the seat in your row to the same point on the seat in front. This it includes your seatback, tray table and magazine pocket.
Naturally, if those all get thinner you'll see an increase in legroom -- provided the airline doesn't use this opportunity to cram another row or two of seats onto the plane, as US carrier Southwest recently did.
Even so, the result is simply to maintain the same amount of legroom rather than stealing a precious inch of space from each passenger.
Airline seat trends: slim is in
Have a look at Lufthansa's newest Recaro slimline seating (which AusBT reviewed and liked) on the left, compared with a seat from a decade ago on the right:
The extra space cut out at knee height delivers more legroom -- as long as the airline doesn't try to squash in more seats, as Qantas did recently with its refitted regional QantasLink Boeing 717 jets.
The downsides? The bit of the seat you're actually sitting on often doesn't stretch as far along your thighs as older versions. And, despite advanced materials and engineering, the padding is on the firm side. But we'll take extra legroom every time.
Seat width is where the real squeeze is happening
Where economy class passengers are now feeling the pinch is in elbow room.
Sure, low-cost airlines like Jetstar, Tiger and AirAsia have less legroom than full-service airlines like Virgin Australia and Qantas.
But unless you're a religious scrutiniser of online seat maps, you might not spot that some airlines -- even the expensive ones on your business travel agenda -- are cramming one extra passenger in every row on some of their larger planes.
British Airways was the original culprit on its leisure routes, adding an extra seat in every row on its Boeing 777 planes and turning a nine-abreast 3-3-3 cabin layout into a ten-abreast 3-4-3 configuration.
The extra space to fit a tenth seat came from chopping an inch and a half from each seat -- now some of the narrowest in the world, down from 18.5 inches -- and the aisles.
Fed up of sitting in an aisle seeat and being bumped into as people move around? It's even worse in a 3-4-3 layout.
Take a look at these two pictures of Boeing 777 economy class to see how things have shifted. Here's Etihad's old economy seating before they went 3-4-3:
Note the width of the aisle, how the centre set of seats line up with the bulkhead wall in front and the centre bins, and how the seats on the left line up with the overhead lighting.
Then compare it to Air New Zealand's 3-4-3 layout:
In the BA case, stiffly worded British complaints forced a swift about-turn, but the floodgates were open for even respected "full service" airlines like Air France, Air New Zealand, American Airlines, Emirates, Etihad and KLM to run their longest Boeing 777 flights with the ultra-tight 3-4-3 economy seating.
Japanese airlines ANA and JAL restrict the tighter seating to their domestic routes, with JAL's seating design team firmly quashing any suggestion that long-haul passengers should be squashed into 3-4-3 when Australian Business Traveller visited the airline's Tokyo workshops in October.
Cathay Pacific's Head of Product similarly dismissed the possibility of a 3-4-3 layout for the Hong Kong carrier earlier this year.
It's not just a Boeing 777 problem
If you're thinking to aim for Airbus seats instead, that's not a bad idea overall.
In economy, Airbus A320 seats tend to be an inch or more wider than the Boeing 737 competition, as do Airbus A380 seats when you compare them with Boeing 747s.
But there's seat creep on the European jets too.
AirAsia X, for example, has nine-abreast 3-3-3 seating on its Airbus A330s, where every other airline (including Qantas, Virgin Australia and even Jetstar) have eight-abreast 2-4-2.
That's a reduction of over an inch of seat width for every passenger on AirAsia X.
And Airbus' cabin interiors marketing chief Zuzana Hrnkova admitted to Australian Business Traveller that the A380 superjumbo could get into the act too, with a terrifying 3-5-3 economy layout a possibility for low-cost carriers buying the A380.
Anyone old and well-travelled enough to have experienced the middle seat on a 2-5-2 layout on a Douglas DC-10 plane or on earlier models of the Boeing 777 will wince at the thought.
Don't get any ideas, airlines: Australian Business Traveller is watching you...
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