Large and In Charge (and Cramped)

fatIt probably won’t come as a shock to anyone that people have grown wider in the last 50 years. Now there’s research to prove it, but is it really that big of a deal for the airline industry?

SizeUK performed the survey on behalf of First Choice, a UK based tour operator. The results are reported in this Telegraph article, complete with the extremely embarrassing and totally unnecessary picture on the left.

Now before we get into details, keep in mind that First Choice offers what they consider to be a healthy 17.8″ of width on 3/4 of its aircraft, so this study could have been biased to make them look good.

In short, it says that the average man today is 16.5″ in width at his shoulders while the average woman is 14.5″ at the shoulders. This means that 2/3 of all men are wider at the shoulders than the average airline coach seat width of 16″.

Whoa – hold on there. There aren’t too many airline coach seats at 16″ wide that I know of. Maybe in the UK charter world that’s standard, but in our database at PriceGrabber on seat dimensions, I show very few with seat width of less than 17″ at all. In fact, just a couple of small props, a few seats on some US Airways aircraft, and most of ANA’s fleet fall below 17″. The average is somewhere between 17 and 18″ as far as I can tell.

I would actually be surprised if 16″ was standard anywhere, because cabin width is determined by aircraft manufacturers and that is mostly what drive seat width. Think about it – have you ever seen seven seats across on a 737? No, because the seats would fall well below the range of comfort. It’s not like you could go from 17″ to 16″ and fit an extra seat – you’d have to go much narrower than that, and it just won’t happen. Sure, you could put five across, but then you lose so many seats that fares would have to go up dramatically. You’re better off just making people who can’t fit in one seat take two instead.

Oh, and even if the average seat width was 16″, that certainly doesn’t mean that a person with 16.5″ shoulders couldn’t fit. There is generally more shoulder width available while you’re there.
Women do have a tougher time according to the study because their hips have grown 1.5″ in the last 50 years and now 1/5 of all women are uncomfortable in a 16″ seat. Well, again, we don’t see too many 16″ seats so it’s a much smaller percentage of people who are affected here.

If people continue to get larger, this could be problematic, but for now, it just isn’t news. The idea of widening seats for a small handful of people just doesn’t make sense, especially when most seats are at least 17″ wide.

For those who truly cannot fit in a seat, there are options. (And no – squeezing yourself into a narrow seat and making you and the person sitting next to you uncomfortable is NOT one of them.)

Most airlines in the US will allow you to take up two seats for free as long as the plane isn’t full. If the plane is full, you would have to buy a second seat or standby until there’s a flight with an extra seat available. Or, if money isn’t an issue, there’s always first class . . . .
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