Photo: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

New Study Shows How Long the Average Person Can Be Comfortable in an Economy-Class Seat

Travel Airports + Flying
by Suzie Dundas Apr 15, 2022

How long can you sit on a plane before your butt starts going numb or low back starts hurting?

Given the complaints in the last five years about airlines doing all they can to nickel and dime customers, including making narrower seats with less leg room and less padding, it’s a bit of a surprise to see that most people can get through several hours of flying in comfort. That’s according to according to a new survey from PhotoAID, a company that takes online, biometric-ready photos for travel documents. They surveyed 1,000 users in February 2022 with quality-control questions and reviewed the answers with their data team. The survey was focused on what users consider to be bad airplane behavior and what annoys them while flying.

More than a third of respondents (36 percent) said they can comfortably fly for up to four hours at a time. Twenty-two percent said seven hours was their cutoff for comfort, nine percent said they can be comfortable for up to 10 hours, and four percent of people said they can comfortably fly for more than 10 hours — we suspect those are the first-class flyers.

These numbers are a bit surprising to see in 2022, when the average economy class plane seat is small, to say the least. On US airlines, the average economy class plane seat is 16.5 inches wide, as compared to 18 or even 18.5 inches in the 1970s and 80s. The seat pitch (the distance between your seat and the seat in front of you, which basically translates to legroom) on an economy class plane seat is now around 30 inches — six inches less than in the 1970s.

And seat thickness? Well, that’s gotten the budget-cutting treatment, too — after all, if you have less leg room, the seat can’t extend as far out as it used to. Most US airline economy class plane seats have a cushion no thicker than about two inches — and that’s before it’s been sat on thousands of times. And if you think you’re going to be more comfortable in the exit row, think again. Those cushions are shorter to make it easier to move past the seats in an evacuation. And if the armrests are fixed in position, you can expect slightly thinner and narrower cushions to accomodate the extra space they need.

economy class plane seat not much leg room

Not great. Photo: Noey smiley/Shutterstock

Given those stats, it’s surprising to see that the majority of flyers can make it four hours in comfort, roughly the distance from New York to Denver. Though the survey doesn’t specify who replied, we’d guess that those people are probably on the shorter and smaller side, since even the slimmest of travelers can have trouble flying if they’re quite tall.

And speaking of slim: while airplane seats have been getting smaller, the average American has been getting larger. In the early 1970s, when travelers could expect larger seats, the average American woman was 5-foot, 3-inches tall, with an average weight of 144 pounds. Men were an average of  5-foot, 9-inches tall, and about 173 pounds. Today, while our heights haven’t changed, our weights have: the average American man now weighs 199.8 pounds, while the average woman weighs 170 pounds. Which is yet another reason we’re stunned that so many people find economy class plane seats comfortable for hours on end. They’re certainly not designed with the average American body in mind.

Other survey questions

Another question the survey asked respondents was about their most annoying plane pet peeves, and the responses reflect the current age of travel we’re living in. Many of the most annoying behaviors have been around for decades, like clapping when the plane lands (annoyed 58 percent of people), crying babies (annoyed 67 percent of people), and seat recliners (annoyed 74 percent of people).

But the number one most annoying bad behavior on an airplane was passengers who don’t cover their mouth while sneezing or coughing. This annoyed 76 percent of respondents and should come as no surprise. Even without bacteria, it’d still be gross to feel the hot breath of someone next to you as they sneeze or cough. But add in the annoyance of getting sick when you travel or risk of catching COVID, and it’s almost shocking that this number wasn’t higher.

Pre-flight pet peeves

Survey takers were also asked “what is your biggest pre-flight pet peeve?” Not surprisingly, the top two responses were both related to traveling during COVID: constantly changing travel restrictions (which 67 percent of respondents found annoying) and pre-flight COVID testing, which annoyed 56 percent of respondents. COVID aside, however, the most annoying pre-flight pet peeve was exactly what you’d expect: flight cancellations and delays.

For the full stats and more infographics, visit the 2022 Air Travel Pet Peeves report.

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