Are you built for flight comfort?

07 December 2016

Once I’ve found my seat number and deposited myself in my window seat, I silently use the power of positive thinking to divert passengers away from sitting next to me. You see, my preference is to have an empty seat on one side with the window on the other. Curious to know who you do NOT want to sit next to on a flight, I posed the question to fellow passengers at Cape Town International Airport. They came up with the top four recurring “undesirables”; namely a parent with a crying infant, an unhygienic individual, a chatty stranger, and a large or overweight person.

I imagined myself to be one of those people that no one wants to sit next to on a flight and my heart sank, because I’m sure they’re aware that no one wants to sit next to them - well, except perhaps the unhygienic guy.But the chatty stranger can be silenced, the scruffy/dirty person can clean up and often the parent doesn’t fly with the baby, but the large person never catches a break. They are what they are: big. Everyone has a sense of self, and I’m sure that a large person feels some level of unease when they know they have to squeeze into a small seat.

1530800729 34 20161129 183549

To find out what it must be like to fly when you’re above average size, I spoke to legendary rugby player Kobus Wiese, who towers above most, standing at 2m tall. When I asked what his experience is when he has to fly, he confirmed that he does feel anxious and self-conscious that he may be compromising another passenger’s flight experience by overflowing onto their seat. He shared that his travel agent flies him business class, or alternatively buys him two seats when he has to fly economy. Apparently South Africans are a nice bunch of people because Mr Wiese says he’s not had any complaints from passengers who’ve been seated next to him in economy, when he only had one very small seat to work with. I personally think they’re probably star struck, and let’s not discount the fact that he’s also quite charming.

The issue of passenger comfort, and sitting beside a large person in economy, came under the spotlight recently when an Italian man, Giorgio Destro, was seated next to a large South African man on an Emirates flight from Cape Town to Dubai. Sig. Destro says he was so squashed in his seat that he had to stand for most of the flight, or needed to sit in the crew’s seats for most of the nine hour flight. He has decided to take Emirates to court for compensation. The issue has not yet been finalised.

This made me realise that if large people are aware of their size and the discomfort they could potentially cause another passenger, and if smaller people do not want to sit next to bigger passengers, hopefully there are airlines working on a solution to solve both issues. Service and safety are understandably a priority when it comes to flying, but comfort surely has to factor in there somewhere. Some airlines have configured their planes to have the luxury business cabin, an economy cabin, and something that is relatively new - a premier economy; a cabin that has seats slightly wider than traditional economy, but not as big as business class. Eureka!

Another airline however has decided on a more controversial route - weighing passengers before their flight, and charging them extra if they exceed a certain weight limit. Much like airlines charge for excess baggage, Samoa Air, the national carrier of Samoa, charges people for excess weight if they are found to be overweight. In 2013, 95% of the Samoan population were declared to be overweight or obese; the same year that Samoa Air started charging extra for excess weight. Officially ranked as the fattest population on earth, it’s debatable whether this is a good or necessary move by the airline. Who knows, it may encourage people who fly often to lose weight?

To you and me it may sound like a simple solution; make bigger seats or introduce premier economy; but it’s not that simple. It’s business science. Airliners want to optimize their revenue by selling as many seats per flight as possible, while also ensuring that the passengers’ needs are met so that they become loyal patrons. It’s economics, and sadly, our leg room and arm rest width are lower down on the priority list than we would like. There is nothing legally binding in your plane ticket that guarantees you any on-board comfort. So, in the meantime, if you’re not joining us in the back in the cheap economy seats, then enjoy your space and comfort up front. But if you’re in extra strong, buckle up and be willing to get cosy with your fellow flying mates.