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Take a seat … if you fit

Country Roads

March 12, 2012
Arvid Huisman , The Daily Freeman Journal

What is the maximum width of an adult rump for comfortable economy class air travel in the United States these days? Eighteen inches. That's right - just 18 lousy inches

For the past 30 years my career has required me to travel by air. Those first few flights into Chicago were exciting. The excitement vanished quickly.

Today I have a firm travel rule: if I can drive there in six hours or less I drive. I still travel to Chicago a few times each year and always drive. By the time I leave my house, drive to the airport, check in, go through security, wait for my flight, fly to Chicago, get off the plane, retrieve my luggage, catch a cab, shuttle or rental car and then get to my destination, I can drive to that destination from my garage.

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When the destination is farther than a six-hour automobile trip, my problems begin.

You see, I am 6'7" tall and my nickname is not Stretch or Slim. I am a large person.

A couple of weeks ago I had to go to a work-related conference in San Diego which, of course, required air travel. I booked my flights through a travel agent who secured for me an aisle seat on each of the four legs of the journey.

The flights to San Diego were OK. While the seats were narrow and too close together, the seat adjacent to mine was empty. It wasn't comfortable but, with a little twisting and shifting, it wasn't painful.

On the return trip, things were worse. The plane from San Diego to Denver was packed. When I found my aisle seat, the other two seats in the row were full with two normal size people.

The widths of seats on commercial airliners vary. According to, on American short-haul jetliners, economy class seat width varies from 16.6 inches to 18 inches. An 18" seat is snug for my derrire; the seats on this flight were narrower.

I compressed into the seat, only to discover than the pitch of the seat was also less than on previous flights. Pitch is the amount of room from a position on one seat to the same position on the seat ahead or behind it. Economy class seat pitch on American short-haul jetliners varies from 29" to 34" with most in the 30" to 32" range.

Without a tape measure in my briefcase I can only guess that this plane had a seat pitch of 30" or less. My knees were painfully pressed into the metal frame of the seat ahead of me. I tried to lean away from the passenger in the middle seat so as not to smother him. While I used my seatbelt it would not have been necessary to do so. No amount of air turbulence could have pulled me out of that seat.

When I got to the departure gate at Denver, I discussed the problem with the gate agent on duty. He graciously moved me to an exit row with no other passengers for the ride to Des Moines.

One hour at the Iowa State Fair will substantiate my belief that there are a lot of butts out there more than 18" wide. On the other side of the equation, as a kid I was always the tallest guy around. No longer. A visit to a high school campus today makes me feel almost normal. Kids are getting taller.

So in a day when Americans are getting wider and taller, airplane seats feel narrower and closer together. I understand this from a business standpoint, but struggle with it from the consumer viewpoint.

All things considered, the airlines accomplish a miracle with nearly 30,000 commercial flights daily in the U.S. Those narrow airplane seats, however, are a pain in my butt (and knees). Attention airlines: I am not a sardine.

The airline I flew to San Diego and back offers premium coach seats with three more inches of leg room (but still the narrow seats) for a hefty fee. I'm a frugal guy but I will definitely consider the upgrade the next time I have to fly. I'd pay even more for a wider seat.

Meanwhile, I'm convinced this problem I have with flying has a theological connection. If God wanted me to fly He would have given me a smaller butt.



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