Squeeze more in! Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg
Squeeze more in! Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Just when you thought that air travel couldn’t become any more uncomfortable, a French aircraft-equipment manufacturer is proposing a seat configuration that’ll reduce the space between your seat and the one in front of it to something less than what even budget airlines like Spirit are currently willing to fly. The manufacturer, Zodiac Aerospace, doesn’t yet have any orders for the sardine-can configuration, as displayed on the Runway Girl Network aviation news site last week (and first exhibited earlier in April). But the airline industry’s penchant for tighter seat configurations, and the discovery that there are profits to be made from forcing customers to pay for what they once received for free, all but ensures that sooner or later even the most diminutive passengers’ knees will be knocking against somebody’s seatback.

Obviously airlines have been packing more seats into tighter configurations for years. What's different now is that they're looking to exceed the number of passengers than safety regulators have previously allowed them to carry. Offender one, in this regard, is Airbus which -- according to Aviation Week -- is looking to expand seating on its workhorse A320 passenger jet from the approved maximum of 180 seats to 186, in order to “further increase efficiency.” That’s a nice way of saying, to “make more money in the same cramped space” on a plane originally designed for 150 passengers. To obtain approval, the manufacturer will need to prove that it can pass an evacuation test with the extra six passengers.

That's where Zodiac comes in. Its proposed seating configuration offers a “seat pitch” -- the distance between the back of a seat to the seat in front of it -- of 27 inches. For comparison’s sake, Seat Guru, an online airplane seat information repository, shows that the vast majority of airlines flying the A320 on short-haul routes do so with seat pitches of 30 to 32 inches in economy (Virgin tops the list at 38 inches). The handful that fly with 28- and 29-inch pitches are budget airlines like Spirit -- none of which have dared go as low as 27 inches (in part, because the A320 hasn’t been approved for such a tight fit). According to Runway Girl Network, Zodiac believes its cramped configuration could pass flight-safety certifications because the evacuation requirements aren’t about inches, but rather about “the ability to debark the aircraft very quickly.”

The financial incentives to proving it can be done are significant. Budget airlines thrive on their ability to pack more people into tighter spaces. In turn the atrocious seating conditions encourage more passengers -- especially on legacy carriers -- to shell out for pricier "economy plus" seats that provide more legroom.

Delta’s Economy Comfort section, for instance, promises “up to 4” of additional legroom.” Last week, during a quarterly earnings call, Delta President Ed Bastian said that the airline had earned $165 million (that’s roughly 59% of the quarter’s reported profit) from selling those seats and other upgrades like priority boarding, up 20% from the previous quarter. In other words, Delta and other airlines have learnt that there’s money to be made in persuading passengers pay for what they might’ve once taken for granted, and equipment manufacturers are happy to help. For passengers, it’s a perverse partnership that -- unless they can afford to upgrade to business class -- is going to continue squeezing them for years to come.

To contact the writer of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net