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Backwards airplane middle seats


It's annoying (and vidicating at the same time) when you see somebody else developing an idea you're working on, and today I saw one such idea announced in Europe.

Last year while flying I mused about how sitting in a row makes us bump up against one another at the point we are all widest -- the elbows and butts. We are not rectangles, so there are roomier ways to pack us. I toyed with a number of ideas.

First I considered staggering the rows slightly, either by angling them back or front a bit, or simply having the middle seats be about 6" behind the aisle and window seats. Then our elbows would not overlap, but it would make the "corridor" (if you can call it that) to the window seat have some narrow corners, and would suffer some of the problems I will outline below.

Then I realized it might make sense to just reverse the middle seat. All the middle seats in a section could face backwards, and we would then have more space because wide parts would mesh with narrow parts. Somebody else has also worked up the same idea and has even got some prototypes and drawings, which are better than the ones I had worked up to show here. However, I will outline some of the issues I came up with in my experiments -- mostly done with household chairs laid out in experimental patterns.

  • Some people don't like facing backwards, it makes them motion sick. However, many people are not bothered at all, and planes are better than trains, so as long as only a modest number of seats are this way, it should be fine.
  • You will be staring at one or two persons in the next row, to the left or right. However, my tests showed this wasn't all that disturbing, and in fact it's good for converation if you are flying with them. (But see below)
  • The person next to you who is backwards doesn't seem to be in your space nearly as much as you would think, in fact in some ways they are less in your space than a person in the middle facing the same direction.
  • If you do want to talk to the person next to you facing backwards, it's actually quite natural and pleasant. Can be pleasant for couples in particular who can easily touch and face one another. (Some first class cabins have had two pods in this configuration, presumably in part for this reason.)
  • Your conversations, however, will be more bothersome to others not in the conversation, because more people have a direct line-of-sound to you, and the seat rows are no longer such barriers.
  • To deal with some of these problems, retractable privacy shields above the armrests may be able to help.
  • You can't "spread out and take the row" by lifting the armrests in the same way. This may make the seats an inferior choice for couples who have aisle and window with empty middle. As such I would not configure the entire plane this way.
  • You may not be able to do this in the exit row, and you certainly can't do it in the back row. However, the middle seat of the back row is very rarely sold.
  • The back of the middle seat can be made narrow at the base (as office chairs are) to allow people to spread their knees, especially if nobody is in the middle.
  • This doesn't work with a shared video screen, but modern planes are all putting personal screens in place anyway.

Now I think the company pushing the idea is doing so for an atrocious reason -- they want to convince the airlines to put 10 seats in a row that currently has 9. In other words, instead of using the better packing to make it more pleasant for the passengers, pack them in even more.

Oddly, I had planned to write that we often talk of coach class as "being packed like sardines" but in fact may cans of sardines do lay the fish in alternating directions to pack them better. That's what "Freedom" as they call it, does.

It would be worth doing some experiments as well with my earlier staggered plans, to see how much you have to stagger the seats to make comfortable elbow room. The problem here is that if one seat is forward of another, the rear passenger's elbow has to fit entirely behind the back of the seat, effectively poking out into the row behind. The front seat can have grooves at that point, since it doesn't need to provide support or padding there, but this may still be too many inches. There is a limit to how far the middle seat can stick back or forward without making it too hard to get into the window.

Of course if you really want to pack us like sardines, the other obvious packing is vertical. If we had no claustrophobia, you could the next row closer and 18" higher, but nobody wants that, I think.


Apparently Delta is going with a variation on your "middle seats ... about 6” behind the aisle and window seats" concept, except they're putting the aisle seat behind the middle seat instead, leading to a sort of "diagonal" row. From Wired.

I'm impressed they fit it in the standard pitch. One of the problems I had in trying to design a diagonal stagger like this was the squeeze between the outside corner of the window (most forward) seat and the rear inside corner of the seat in front -- this will be narrower, and I wondered if you could get approval for how it might interfere with emergency exit. (After all, they are paranoid about how a reclined seat will interfere with getting out in an emergency.)

This approach misses one thing though. For those of us in the "widebody" category, and actually for everybody, you want room to spread your elbows. Part of my goal in getting away from the 3-in-a-row design was that it aligns us up so widest part of the body bumps into widest part. I would modify these seats so that there is a small hole at elbow level instead of a solid surface. This intrudes into the seat pocket area of the seat behind, but I would rather have somebody's elbow taking my space there than somebody's elbow/arm right at my elbow the way we do it now.

The padded lean-against curve is a nice touch I did not consider (as I switched to the alternating direction approach.)

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