Editor’s Note — Monthly Ticket is a new CNN Travel series that spotlights some of the most fascinating topics in the travel world. In June, we’re taking to the skies for a look at the latest developments in plane interiors, including the people working to change the way we fly.
(CNN) — You might not know that the standard for today’s airline seat sizing goes all the way back to 1954.
That’s when Boeing first flew the prototype that would lead to the jet age’s iconic 707.
As Boeing developed its aircraft families, it reused core elements like the fuselage, even as it developed new wings and engines.
For instance, the 727 was essentially a 707 but with the engines at the back. The 737 — still manufactured today — was and is essentially a 707 but with two engines instead of four.
The 707’s seats, arranged with six in each row in “tourist” or “coach,” as economy used to be called, were pretty good for 1954, but that was nearly 70 years ago.
You might not know a lot of people who were adults in 1954, but if you do, make the most of their impressive longevity and compare their general size and stature next to a strapping, well-nourished 18-year-old of today.
All things being equal, you’ll probably note that people these days are quite a bit bigger — taller, with wider shoulders and wider hips.
But the Boeing 737 — which has a fuselage width of 148 inches (3.76 meters), just like the 707s — still seats six people in every row.
No wonder planes seem more cramped today, even the slightly wider Airbus A320s, which tends to offer an 18″ seat, or the A220 (designed by Bombardier as the C Series), which offers 19″.
Top: A Boeing 707, the aircraft maker’s first jetliner. Bottom: A Boeing 737-800 in Hanover, Germany, in 2013.
Getty Images, Getty Images
But what if these single-aisle airplanes were just, well, bigger? That’s a question that aviation interior consultancy LIFT Aero Design is asking with a concept called Paradym.
Managing Director Daniel Baron and design partner Aaron Yong are refreshingly open that Paradym really does need a new paradigm: wider planes.
“Paradym is a configuration concept for the next generation of single-aisle aircraft,” Baron tells CNN.
“It adopts a higher standard of comfort in economy class using wide triple seats. What’s totally different is the idea of a new single-aisle aircraft that is considerably wider than today’s 737 or A320 families.
“Every row in Paradym would have wide triple seats, with 20 inches between armrests instead of the current 17-18. Every row would also have two armrests between seats instead of one.”
The concept would allow airlines to modify these three seats to offer different levels of service according to demand, including economy and premium economy. There is a lie-flat option as well.
Changing traveler needs
LIFT is asking the question at a particularly pivotal time, particularly for the narrowbody single-aisle aircraft that make up most of the world’s short-to-medium-haul fleet, and a small but growing part of its long-haul services.
Boeing has stretched the 1960s airframe of the Boeing 737 as far as it can with the 737 MAX. Airbus is getting that way with the A320neo evolution of the 1980s’ A320. Add that to the opportunities for hydrogen power, and it seems likely that both airplane makers will need to build a fully new plane for their next narrowbody.
Now is the time to talk about making that plane a bit wider.
“The simple fact is that in the age of rising airfares, work-from-home-forever and the incoming metaverse revolution, airlines will need to reinvent themselves to stay relevant,” Baron argues.
“Space in long-haul economy class has been shrinking as more space is allocated to premium classes for increasingly luxurious seats. And throughout the world, humans are getting larger in every direction. The seat width standards of yesterday may no longer be sufficient to keep frequent long haul flying attractive, especially with ultra long-haul flights now stretching 16-20 hours.”
LIFT Aero Design’s concept would allow airlines to adapt a plane’s interiors according to demand. But first, aircraft makers are going to have to start making wider planes.
LIFT Aero Design
Covid-19, too, has changed the way that many people perceive their own personal “bubble” of space, while rising rates of onboard disruption from unruly passengers seem likely linked to the fact that seat rows are, by and large, a few inches closer to each other than they were in previous years, and that there are more seats in each row.
When the Boeing 777 first started flying in the 1990s, almost all mainline airlines put nine economy seats in each row. Today, almost all of them have 10. When Boeing designed the 787 Dreamliner in the 2000s, it advertised a comfortable eight-abreast seating standard and a nine-abreast option for low cost carriers — but, in reality, only Japan Airlines took the eight-abreast seating.
From an airline accountant’s point of view, this makes sense. The received wisdom in the aviation industry — and the ongoing success of low-cost carriers — is that any comfort qualms are settled by cheaper ticket prices, and that very few passengers choose their flight on anything other than price and schedule.
‘A cabin with no curtains or dividers’
Airlines, Baron explains, “have access to highly sophisticated revenue management software to adjust fares, but at the end of the day, cannot physically adjust seats in multi-class aircraft to meet ever-fluctuating demand.”
Some have tried, like with the kind of convertible seat previously used by some European carriers to create a wider berth for their middle-seat-free-economy Eurobusiness-style seating, but this has now largely been removed.
“Moving forward,” Baron says, “for airlines the key to sustainable profitability will be the ability to tailor the entire experience to customer needs.”
These can change even for the same person between trips: a road warrior has different needs if she is on a one-hour day flight to Omaha alone versus with her family flying eight hours overnight to Europe on vacation.
“We already see a trend toward product unbundling,” LIFT’s Aaron Yong says, referring to airlines selling individual mini-upgrade products like extra legroom seats, better meals, lounge access, more luggage, and so on.
“Paradym is a configuration concept for the next generation of single aisle aircraft,” says LIFT managing director Daniel Baron.
LIFT Aero Design
“In the future, demand for flexibility in seat product and inflight service options will only rise. In this context, the primary advantage of Paradym for airlines is the ability to sell multiple products with a single seat model throughout the aircraft. Customers would be able to book any experience on offer by the airline, with the airline able to continually tweak in order to optimize revenue generation for the flight, using every row in the aircraft, until departure.”
“Paradym envisions a cabin with no curtains or dividers,” Yong explains, comparing triple seat sets to sets of four seats, or quads.
“The concept of traditional classes is replaced by products. The airline could sell any row from nose to tail as economy, premium economy and/or a lie flat product ie, the customer purchases three seats and gets a wide sleeping surface nearly as long as a quad. It could be combined with premium food, IFE and amenities and sold as ‘premium economy flat’, a brand new product category.”
That might not be for the famous names with their firmly established brands and well-known brands: Delta One, United Polaris, British Airways Club World, and so on.
But new airlines start up all the time, and often the old guard realizes that there can be real benefits to the new crowd’s way of doing things.
Is that enough, though, for a Paradym shift?
Top image: LIFT Aero Design’s Paradym concept. Credit: LIFT Aero Design