ALTOM: Airplane device change is small—just like seats

There has been a big stir in the past few weeks over the supposedly relaxed rules about the use of personal electronic devices on airplanes. The Federal Aviation Administration announced that it had seen the light—after many years of having it shone directly into its eyes—and would allow the use of smartphones, MP3 players, games, e-book readers and similar non-communicating devices while the plane is taking off, landing and taxiing. It’s being called “gate to gate.”

But the new rule applies only if the airlines can show that using those devices is safe on their own planes, a provision that’s been in place for decades now. Here’s the crux of the big announcement—you can now listen to an iPod while the plane is climbing to 10,000 feet, but only if the airline has tested for interference with its avionics. And that means all types of aircraft in the fleet.

You still can’t make calls, work with your spreadsheet on a laptop, or connect to the Internet for market quotes, but you can read “Who Moved My Cheese?” on your Kindle. Nonetheless, the airlines are suddenly in a foot race to see which ones can get certified first. I’m also sure the poor flight attendants who have to mount a gadget patrol before every flight will be dancing in the aisles.

I can’t speak for every traveler, but I’ve never felt terribly annoyed at having to keep my MP3 player stowed for the few minutes it takes to taxi from the terminal, take off, and get up to 10,000 feet. But I have been seriously ticked off in the past few years by the airlines’ reducing seat space. It’s just one of the factors that have made air travel for me roughly the equivalent of a public colonoscopy.

Flights are one of the few times it’s socially acceptable to literally rub elbows with a stranger for hours at a time, no matter how effective his deodorant. The current seats are generally too narrow and packed too close together for comfort.

Airline seats have two basic measurements. The first is width, which is the actual butt room you’re allotted. The other is pitch, the distance between a point on your seat and the same point on the seat in front of you.

In coach, where most of us sit, seat width is generally 17 to 19 inches. This is because of outdated and misunderstood data. Back in 1962, the government supposedly measured our collective backsides and found them to be 14 inches for men and a bit more, 14.4 inches, for women.

Today, similar studies, presumably conducted with the same decorum, yield results of greater than 15 inches. We’re bigger now. The seats are not. But the seat designers overlooked something else: Our hips aren’t generally our widest part, at least not for men. Our shoulders are. The average U.S. male’s shoulder width is about 18 inches. That’s supposed to fit into what the airlines call your “living space” of 17 to 19 inches.

As you might imagine, airlines have been working for years on how to pack more seats into the aluminum tube while not causing passengers to revolt. Airlines couldn’t reduce the seat width, because that would have passengers being squeezed upward. Instead, they changed the seat pitch to get more rows of us in.

Most U.S. aircraft have a pitch of around 32 inches. That results in negligible legroom, and the aggravation of always having to pull on the seat in front of you to stand up. When the guy in front leans his seat back, you’re almost chewing fabric from the back of his seat.

To be fair, the airlines are perpetually up against the revenue wall, so they have to come up with ways to make passengers pay more for greater comfort. Some airlines are now offering seats with more legroom for an additional cost, for example. And if passengers made seating comfort their number-one concern, airlines would likely respond.

But passengers don’t. Year after year, it’s the cost of a ticket that fliers put at the top of their list, not comfort. The airlines, not being idiots, consequently take the complaints about comfort in stride while providing what passengers really care about: lower fares.

Besides, on many flights, real comfort is just a few steps away, in domestic first class, or on overseas flights in the even cushier standard of business class or international first class, with price tags that run into tens of thousands of dollars. As with any other business, the really good stuff costs more.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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