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Just How Uncomfortable Can Air Travel Get?

Much is currently being made in academic economics journals about the widening wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots. And the idea has gotten considerable traction among travelers as well. Whether the two phenomena are linked or not remains to be established, but at least figuratively, the wealth gap is on daily display in the world of travel, in the form of the comfort gap.

Even as many of the world’s airlines invest heavily in cushy lie-flat seats for their business- and first-class cabins, the comfort levels in coach are declining. As the average passenger’s height, weight, and girth have increased, the airlines have been squeezing coach passengers into ever-smaller seats. Over the past two decades, seat pitch, the distance between seats, has been cut by 10 percent, from 34 inches to between 30 and 32 inches. And during that same period, average load factors, the percentage of seats occupied, have soared from around 65 percent to 80-plus percent.

Never have so many flyers been shoehorned into so little space.

As bad as it is, the worst may be yet to come.

Airbus was outed in a Los Angeles Times article as having applied for a patent on a new airline seat, a “seating device comprising a forward-foldable backrest,” described as follows:

A seating device with reduced bulk, for example for an aircraft. This seating device comprises a backrest which describes a circular translational movement towards the front and upwards of the device when the device is brought to the retracted configuration. A seating structure is provided comprising a bearing piece on which are fixed, side by side, a plurality of seating devices with reduced bulk.

That’s a long way of describing what is basically a bicycle seat with a tiny backrest (illustrations are included in the patent application). Because there’s no proper seatback, and the seating surface is narrower than a typical seat cushion, airlines would be able to cram even more seats into the main cabin, at even greater expense to passengers’ elbow and leg room.

Airbus was quick to characterize the application as “simply conceptual.” But given the airlines’ focus on “revenue optimization,” it’s exactly the kind of concept that’s likely to get traction with plane buyers.

Meanwhile, Boeing on Sunday confirmed that it will offer airlines a high-density version of the B737 that will increase seating capacity from 189 to 200 seats, in the process reducing pitch from 31 inches to 29 inches.

So far, no airlines have placed orders for the new plane, but Ryanair is considered the likely launch customer. Unless, that is, those bicycle seats prove just too hard to resist.

Reader Reality Check

How do you handle the discomfort of coach travel?

This article originally appeared on

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