The Cheat Sheet

Getting to the bottom of seating arrangements

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on February 24, 2016

Elena Nayashkova/

Planning a party?

No, making room for ‘big’ people. To be precise, obese fliers.

Oh, I’ve read horror stories about the rise of obesity...

Well, this is different. It’s about helping them find their own place during air travel. If you are a frequent flier, you may have met several fat people who complain how uncomfortable their journeys have become, with airlines trying to squeeze in more people in less space. Now, aircraft maker Airbus has a plan to fix this, and make more money out of it.

What’s the plan here?

It’s simple. The European aerospace giant has applied for patenting a “re-configurable passenger bench seat”.

Just a few weeks ago, the US Patent and Trademark Office put out a patent application from Airbus’ Sven Taubert and Florian Schmidt for this curious seat, which many reports say could revolutionise airline ticket sales.


To get to the root of the problem first, in the US, the standard for an aircraft seat width is still based on average measurements taken in 1962. Of course, people are getting bigger and bigger, while planes are not. So, the new system — which could be adapted for other modes of transport as well — has a bench seat that can be configured to hold anywhere from two passengers to a whole family.

A bench on a plane?

Well, this is not the your teacher made you stand on in school. This seating system has adjustable seat belts and armrests. As a result, the space available to a particular passenger can be tailored, based on need. That’s why people think this can be a game-changer, especially in ticket pricing.

How’s that?

See, at present, airlines follow what we call an à la carte system. Here, costs are spread evenly within a category (class) of seats. In the new, flexible system, airlines can “index” pricing in relation to the amount of space and fuel required to transport a passenger. So, a small child may pay less as she needs less room than a full-size adult.

That’s cool! Paying adult travel fees for my little ones has been my favourite bugbear of late

It can help overweight passengers as well, who usually end up buying a second seat. And the interesting part is, as Airbus claims, this scheme nicely fits into the fare rate system currently in vogue in the air-freight industry, which bills based on weight.

But won’t implementing an adaptive seating arrangement be tough and time-consuming?

True. Aviation experts say it will take major logistical changes to the current airline system. But given the way obesity’s increasing across the globe, in advanced and developing economies alike, it’s time transport agencies thought about flexi seating systems.

Yes, but these are mere ideas…

Of course. And their implantation will take enormous investments. Plus, rules that govern the aircraft industry are so strict across the globe. You can’t push any fancy seat there. Experts say seats in commercial aircraft must withstand heavy forward (gravitational) force without breaking. They must not burn easily (flame retardant), and adhere to the thumb rule that an aircraft can be fully evacuated within 90 seconds. Finally, the seats must not cause injury or discomfort to passengers.

A tall order

Indeed. Meanwhile, Airbus has also applied for a patent for a new design of storage containers. Airbus says these containers can stay under each passenger’s seat. The design will allow flyers to keep goods under their cushion. But some experts feel the containers may reduce legroom, and can make taking stuff out of them in the middle of a flight a nasty experience. Anyway, watch this space. There’s more in store.

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Published on February 24, 2016
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