Why aren’t the Windows Aligned with the Rows of Seats in Commercial Aircraft?

M. Silverman asks: Why aren’t the windows aligned with the rows of seats on planes?

view-from-airplaneWhile airplane manufacturers do design the planes with general row positioning and pitch (the measurement from one seat to the same exact point on the seat in front or behind it) in mind, with the windows often lining up with the seats, the designers’ exact recommended arrangement is rarely, if ever, followed. You see, the final placement of seats is left up to the individual airlines that purchase the plane.

To make the seating arrangement as flexible as possible for airlines, there are multiple tracks on the floors that the seats are mounted on. This allows the seats to easily be moved closer together or farther apart. The airlines can even switch the aisle arrangement via moving a line of seats to a completely different track.

For example, on some versions of the Boeing 777, Boeing recommends a layout of 3+3+3 with a 32 inch (81.2 cm) pitch for economy passengers. In this layout, you need a passenger density of 67% before a passenger may be required to sit next to someone else. And if some passengers choose to sit next to one another, the percentage is even higher before other passengers must sit next to someone. Boeing recommends this layout because, in internal studies they’ve conducted, they claim that one of the biggest factors in passenger perception of comfort on a flight is whether there is someone directly next to them or not.

Nevertheless, disregarding the manufacturer recommendation, pitch on a given class of seats on the 777 varies from airline to airline (resulting in the seats not necessarily lining up with the windows) and it is not uncommon for airlines to choose to go with an arrangement of 2+5+2 in economy on this plane, which requires only a passenger load of 55% before people potentially have to start sitting next to each other. (For reference, United Airlines flies at around a 70%-75% passenger load per flight on average.)

On that note, as is readily apparent to anyone who’s flown recently, for various reasons airlines are increasingly less about the comfort of their customers, who often have little other choice but to take planes for fast, long distance travel, and more about how much money can be sucked out of each flight. Since passenger seating is the biggest money maker for airlines, they try to cram as many seats (and therefore as many potential customers) as possible on a plane. Beyond profitability, this also allows them to be more competitive with their pricing to try to get customers to choose them over a competitor; this is particularly important for relatively short flights where customers almost always pick ticket price over comfort, no matter how much they’ll later complain about the miserable flight.

Towards this end, only a few decades ago the average pitch between seats on commercial aircraft was 34 inches (86.3 cm), but today has diminished to just 31 inches (78.7 cm), with even 28 inch (71 cm) pitch seats now starting to be introduced.

Airlines are not only shrinking the pitch between seats, but also in some cases the width, despite the general populace’ ever expanding girth. For instance, while 18 inches (45.7 cm) or more was once the norm for economy class (18.5 inches still being the recommendation by Boeing for economy seats on the 777), rows as narrow as 16.7 inches (42.4 cm) are not unheard of today. (For your reference, the average adult’s shoulder width is approximately 16 inches, though of course varying significantly from person to person and whether the person is male or female.)

If narrowed enough on certain planes, this allows for an extra seat in each row. For example, the Airbus A330 was designed to have eight seats in a row, but it’s not uncommon for airlines to use thinner than the recommended width of seats to accommodate nine seats in a row on this aircraft.

And if you were wondering, according to Cynthia Corbett of the FAA, there is no set rule for how many passengers and seats can be crammed into commercial aircraft, and the exit rows are even allowed to have the seats block the exit by up to 50%.  The only caveat is that the FAA requires all commercial aircraft be able to be fully evacuated in less than 90 seconds with half the exits blocked. This must be demonstrated by manufacturers in both computer simulated and live tests. (More on this and the inherently flawed nature of the testing in the Bonus Discussion below.)

So next time you’re on a plane and the window doesn’t line up with your seat, know that the reason this is the case is because the airline used a different seating plan than the plane was originally designed for, generally in an effort to cram more seats into the aircraft. And don’t forget to stretch your legs and flex your leg muscles occasionally on a long distance flight in whatever way you can manage given the tight quarters. The ever-diminishing leg room aboard commercial flights is resulting in more incidents of flight-induced venous thrombosis; so regular stretching and movement while flying just might save your life.

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Bonus Discussion:

While no regulatory body is much concerned with the windows lining up with the seats on commercial aircraft, numerous consumer issues concerning the current state of airline travel in the United States did spark the formation of the Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection in 2012. In 2015, they specifically began looking in-depth at airlines cramming more and more people into flights, and in the process uncovered many safety issues that this results in.

To begin with, the recommended crash position that has been proven to minimize injury and death in the event of airplane crash is to bend forward with, essentially, your head in your lap.  The problem is that with the ever-diminishing pitch (particularly in extreme cases like 28″ pitch), more and more people cannot physically assume this position given how close the seat in front of them is. This is compounded by the fact that new “slimline” seats, with hard, rather than padded, backs (allowing for the saving of a couple inches per seat to be able to accommodate more rows of seats) are being introduced. So in the event of a crash, not only can those of the taller persuasion not necessarily assume the crash position, but there is a risk that they’ll smack their head against a hard seat-back in front of them in these types of emergency situations.

Another issue, addressed by Dr. Nimia L Reyes during the Aviation Consumer Protection meetings, is the aforementioned potentially life threatening venous thrombosis. With less space for an individual to move their legs, in flights over four hours long studies have shown a significant increase in instances of this condition in recent years. Two of the primary risk factors here are duration of the flight and height of the individual- essentially the longer you sit and the more tightly packed you are, the more likely you are to develop this condition.

(Note: if you’re interested in avoiding VTE or are at high risk of it, you should know that you are twice as likely to develop VTE if you have a window seat than an aisle seat. This is generally thought to be because aisle seat individuals by necessity have to stand up more than those who have window seats, not just for themselves but because they often have to stand up to let other people in and out of the aisle. An aisle seat passenger is also able to occasionally stretch their legs into the aisle, whereas at present pitch levels, many window seat passengers cannot easily stretch their legs much at all.)

Government Affairs Association of Professional Flight Attendants representative Julie Frederick also noted while addressing the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection that the present high-density passenger seating has led to a rapid rise in “air rage” incidents, which are generally centered around personal space issues. Most notable among the triggers for these incidents is a passenger leaning their seat back, resulting in approximately 3/4 of all reported air-rage incidents today. Due to the decreasing pitch, there often simply isn’t any room to lean back without ramming your seat into the knees of the person behind you. (In the case of individuals over 6 feet tall (1.83 m), their knees may already be pressed up against the upright seats with no room whatsoever for the person in front to recline.) This inevitably results in arguments over who has the right to those few inches of space.

Frederick also noted that there are over 50 medical emergencies per day in flights in the U.S. alone, about 7% of which require emergency landings. But with increasingly overcrowded planes, flight attendants are finding it more and more difficult to not only get to the passenger in need quickly, but also to find space to deal with the medical emergency.

To sum up the Association of Professional Flight Attendant’s stance on modern passenger densities aboard commercial aircraft, Frederick noted,

The responsibilities of the flight attendants are expanding every year, from security and safety to medical emergencies, flight attendants are asked to do it all. We know all too well that we are the last line of defense on both sides of the cockpit door. As high density seating increases, we believe that both the regulators and air carriers management will need to look closely at the causes and effect that “packing them in” has on safety, security, and not just the customer experience.

All that said, while the modern seating arrangements on a percentage of commercial aircraft have become almost intolerably uncomfortable in economy class, all commercial planes and general seating arrangements still must be designed such that passengers can all exit the plane in under 90 seconds with half of the exits blocked. (Unsurprisingly, when planes fail these tests, the solution often used is not to reduce the number of passengers or give them more room to move, but to increase the number of exits.)

However, as mentioned, there is significant controversy over these tests. While the testers do many things to simulate a real crash evacuation, the live testing scenarios can never actually accurately simulate real world crash situations owing to safety concerns for the test subjects. Nevertheless, the testers do try via- randomly blocking half the exits (not even the flight attendants know which will be blocked in a given test); restricting visibility by using emergency lighting only; using humans of all ages in the tests; including dummy infants for some people to carry; and randomly placing luggage around the cabin and aisle(s).

Of course, even with all this, the passengers all know they are there for evacuation testing, so actually pay attention to the normal evacuation instructions (something real-world passengers almost never do); they are calm and think rationally; there is no smoke or any such visual or breathing impairments; no one is injured; they are not trying to get to their children perhaps in another row away from the closest exit before evacuating; and they must pass a physical fitness test before being allowed to be a test passenger (for safety and liability reasons) so don’t accurately represent the general public.

Unsurprisingly from this, a 2013 Canadian Safety Board study determined that in real world evacuations, the 90 second evacuation time is rarely met, even though many planes don’t fly full and accidents don’t necessarily block or disable half the exits.

While this is a concern, Corbett noted that 90 seconds is not some magic safety number.  It’s just a relatively low number to make sure manufacturers at least put some effort into making sure passengers can exit a plane quickly in the event of an emergency. Specifically, the time was set somewhat arbitrarily based on one primary factors- fire. The flash burn fire event time on a typical aircraft when the rule was instituted was about 120 seconds. Further, if you happen to survive a significant plane crash, by far the most dangerous thing to you in most cases, according to Frederick, is smoke inhalation. So getting out to fresh air as rapidly as possible is key to minimizing passenger deaths that occur after a crash.

It should also be noted that, according to Frederick, in her 35 years of experience in the flight attendant industry, it isn’t an accurate assessment to assume people will panic in the event of a crash, even a major one.  In fact, she notes that in such situations most people actually go into, as she described it, a “space out” mode, which is why flight attendants are trained to shout instructions at passengers to break them out of their trance and get them doing what they are supposed to do. Essentially, in her experience in real world accidents many people’s reaction is to just freeze and not do anything unless they are told. (This perhaps indicates that an automated, redundant emergency evacuation system that gives clear, loud instructions with brightly lit arrows pointing to the nearest exit from a specific seat might be beneficial to help the flight attendants out and help the passengers know where to go in potentially smoke-filled cabins where the nearest exit might not be visible.)

On that note, both Corbett of the FAA and Frederick of the APFA note that in real world scenarios the biggest issue regarding safety in plane evacuations is not the former flawed evacuation testing, but simply that almost nobody pays any attention to the safety briefings, despite significant efforts to make them more entertaining. This leaves many passengers with no real knowledge of what they’re supposed to do in the event of a crash nor where their closest emergency exit is.

Bonus Facts:

  • If you’re wondering about the safest place on a plane to sit, that’s the rear.  In fact, you’re approximately 40% more likely to survive a crash if you sit in the back of the plane, rather than the front. The other advantage to the rear is that most passengers choose not to sit in the back. So unless the plane is full, you might get the row of seats to yourself. (Of course, a bathroom is also often in the rear on planes, soooo.) Another factor to consider is where the closest exit is. As a general rule, studies examining accidents have shown you’ll want to be within six rows of an emergency exit to maximize your survival chances. So if the plane doesn’t have a rear exit, that’s something to be factored in. If it does have such an exit, and the back seats happen to not have a bathroom right next to them, well, reserve that seat!
  • As a result of the way the system works for pressurizing the airplane cabin and keeping a steady supply of fresh air (See: How Commercial Airplanes Keep a Steady Supply of Fresh Air and How the Emergency Oxygen Masks Supply Oxygen Given They are Not Hooked Up to Any Air Tank), the humidity levels are ultra-low in-flight, making it so you dehydrate very quickly just sitting there. Particularly for long flights, it’s critical then that you drink plenty of water throughout. This ultra-low humidity level, combined with the low cabin pressure, also reduces your sense of taste and smell by as much as 30%, which is why airline food generally tastes so bland. To try to compensate for this somewhat, many airlines make sure their food is much more strongly flavored or spiced than you’d normally find appetizing.
  • Flatbead Seats

    Flatbed Seats

    The current largest seat pitch on any commercial flight is a whopping 94 inches (230 cm)!  This is in first class aboard the American Airlines’ configuration of the Airbus A330-300s. This massive space is needed to accommodate flatbed seats, that can recline all the way back into something of a bed.

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  • Last time I rode commercial air, my back was so out of whack after a five-hour flight that I had to use a hiking stick (essentially a staff) just to climb out of bed or out of a chair for over two weeks. The seats were so narrow my hips (I’m an average male, not grossly obese) practically ground against the armrests and I had almost no room to move my legs to try to gain any relief over the entire trip. I’d rather drive, but over a journey of 2,000 miles or more the flight is obviously the faster way to travel. The train is far more comfortable and relaxing, but driving tends to still be faster overall.

  • The shorter space between seat and seat-back is truly the bane of the tall person’s existence. I typically fly a few times a year, but not enough for medallion or other special status. Being 6’9″ (mostly legs) makes normal coach almost an impossibility (femur is longer than distance between back of seat and rear of seat in front and knees are higher than where the tray table juts out). I am more than willing to pay extra for exit row but cannot afford a second seat or first class. The thing is, airlines will accommodate almost any disability or condition (including “stress” dogs) but there is no method to allow a tall person a fighting chance at an exit row when they are booking the ticket. Most of the time I can get one for $25-75 more per flight (which I’m fine paying), but it’s rolling the dice that all of them aren’t taken up by the frequent flyers first because there is no way to access them (doctors note or not) until shortly before the flight. And now, even paying extra for exit row, some planes only have extra space for one seat although they charge extra for the regular short spaced ones just the same. Practically every time I get stuck in a regular coach seat, even if I’ve explained the situation to the person in front of me that their seat physically can’t go back because my knees are wedged in there, they will forget and try and the tall person is left limping for a few days on vacation!

  • Do you really want to fly with a company where profits take precedence over peoples comfort? Yes? Good. All airlines are like that!