The Secret to Getting a Good Airline Seat: Book a Better Airplane

I asked my wife to measure the width of my backside, standing. Fourteen inches. Of course, people do not normally take a tape measure to their anatomy and, if they do, it’s better that it be done discreetly by an intimate rather than a stranger.

But these days there is a need to know how you measure up not just in inches but fractions of an inch because there is a piece of personal space being sold to you that has been pared down to intolerable dimensions – the space sold to you by airlines.

I speak not simply of the seat, although that is the physical object that you pay for, but the space that comes with the seat. The airline is also selling you a tiny piece of real estate between your seat and the next, as well as the air around and above you – the importance of which is seldom noted. Everything about this allotment of space has been decided scientifically with a punitive rigor worthy of a coffin maker.

The chair that I occupy every day as I write is 19 inches wide. It has been carefully sculpted with adjustable lumbar support for this purpose. Without getting too vivid that 14-inch girth changes when I sit. There is spread. That spread comfortably settles within the 19 inches. Nobody is yet offering a coach seat that wide.

I have been flying on airlines since 1958. I have sat in every iteration of the airline seat since then. I have seen cabin comforts get progressively better as the airplanes themselves have become progressively better – faster, quieter and much safer. In that time, and I think much to the world’s advantage, air travel has gone from being a rare and expensive privilege to becoming a mass transit system.

This could not have happened without a fundamental change in the transaction between the airline and the passenger. You can’t offer the prices of a mass transit system and at the same time provide the comforts of a luxury limousine. Most passengers get that. I can now fly the Atlantic for a fraction of the 1958 price, in real terms,…

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