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Airplane Seats Are Getting Less Comfortable. But Here's How That's Good for the Environment.

by Matt Hershberger Mar 7, 2016

IF IT FEELS LIKE AIRLINE SEATS have been shrinking over the past few decades, you’re not crazy: seats were 18 inches wide in the 1970’s, prior to airline regulation, and they have sense dropped to 16-and-a-half inches wide, according to the New York Times. But at the same time, the average man and woman have become 30 and 26 pounds heavier, respectively. All of which means that airplanes have become horrifically uncomfortable for anyone who is of a remotely normal size.

The good news for people who hate discomfort is that the US Congress is considering a bill that would set limits to how small seats could get. And this is a smart call: smaller seats have a direct correlation to deep vein thrombosis, a potentially life-threatening blood clot that could lead to a pulmonary embolism if you’re cramped into a tiny seat over long periods of time. At the same time, tiny seats may also make it harder for economy class passengers to get off the plane in the case of an emergency, which could potentially result in fatalities as well.

But while cramped airline seats are an actual nightmare — and can in some cases be dangerous — they may actually be better for the environment. The reason? The more people you pack on a plane, the fewer greenhouse gasses are being emitted per person. The Union of Concerned Scientists has long advocated taking economy class seats rather than first class seats for this exact reason: first class seats are luxurious and spacious, but that spaciousness comes at the expense of another seat or two. And being able to transport more people on a single plane means potentially fewer trips, which is great from an emissions standpoint, as airplanes are really terrible greenhouse gas emitters.

This, of course, is not why airlines are making seats smaller. It pays for them to pack their passengers like sardines because it means they can get more bang for their buck. But the result is the same regardless of the intent. So it may be good for airlines to keep seats small. Or, possibly, get a bit more creative about how they pack passengers. I personally have always wanted to be able to hop into a bunk bed when I get on a plane, like in a train sleeper car, and just sleep all the way to my destination. But this doesn’t look like the direction airlines will likely be going: they are designing “stand up” seats which look like absolute nightmares. Absolute nightmares that will be really great for the environment.

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