Are plane seats keeping heavier passengers safe?

Scientists are concerned that plane seats may not be able to safely restrain people of average weight and size in an emergency, as populations get heavier.

cramped seat in plane cabin

Passengers feel the squeeze in economy class.

Scientists have this week been questioning whether seats – and seat belts – on today’s passenger planes are strong enough to restrain ‘heavier’ travellers in an accident.

It’s something you’d think seat manufacturers would have figured out by now, but with the global population getting heavier, it’s an area that needs revisiting.

Scientists in the US point out the problem: aircraft seats haven’t evolved to meet the average size and weight of today’s passengers.

For decades, regulations have required aircraft engineers to design seats for an average weight of 77kgs (12 stone 2), in line with international standards. While the average American man weighs in at nearly 13 stone 12 and the average woman 11 stone 11, according to figures from the centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The stats also don’t account for the 42 percent of Americans who are expected to be obese in 2030, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Turbulence is much more likely to turn passengers of any size into in-flight projectiles and cause the most injuries

Japanese engineer Yoshihiro Ozawa – whose company makes crash test dummiestold the Times that there is no regulation that says airlines have to test for heavier passengers.

What scientists want is to put seats and belts through their paces with heavier dummies to see if they stand up to the test with the sheer forces of a crash landing, for example.

It all makes for uncomfortable reading.

On the plus side, statistical trends show that around 90 percent of accidents are survivable. And plane crashes are still rare.

If we are addressing concerns about the effectiveness of seat belts, let’s not forget that turbulence is much more likely to turn passengers of any size – slim or obese – into in-flight projectiles and cause the most injuries.

It’s all well and good trying to make seat belts even safer, but the problem is that passengers are only required to wear them on take-off and landing.

The wider issue is that aircraft seats might not even be adequate enough to restrain people of average weight

At cruising altitude – where wearing a belt is advised but not required unless the neon seat belt light chimes – passengers have been injured and in some cases, killed because they weren’t strapped in when they passed through undetectable clear air turbulence.

In non-fatal accidents, statistics show that turbulence is the leading cause of in-flight injuries. If passengers were required to wear seat belts throughout the flight, then we’d see a lot less injuries on planes. I’m sure that experts wouldn’t dispute this.

While the rise in obesity is a cause for concern, a few airlines are already addressing size by requiring passengers who are unable to fit between the two armrests to buy two seats.

The wider issue is that aircraft seats might not even be adequate enough to restrain people of average weight.

The crash of an Air Midwest commuter flight in 2005 – which killed all 21 people on board – was partly due to the flight crew underestimating their jet’s weight by using average passenger weights for take off, as required by the FAA.

Cramped cabin seats

Passengers feel the squeeze in economy class. Source: Claire Company

The plane took off beyond its maximum allowable take-off weight, which sparked a chain of events that led to the crash.

It was a watershed moment for the FAA, which responded by increasing average passenger weights used in calculating take off weights.

If the airline industry applied this idea to cabin seating by making seats stronger and wider to support people of average weight then I assume that we would be safer in the skies.

Without scientific tests with heavier crash dummies, we can only speculate.

But I can’t help but feel frustrated at some of the narrow economy seats we’re forced to squeeze in to (Air France’s pencil thin seats spring to mind).

Let’s face it, economy seats are as cramped today as they’ve always been.

You don’t have to be morbidly obese these days to struggle to fit comfortably between the armrests either. What about pregnant mums and obsessive gym types who are all muscle and no fat?

Of course comfort is a separate issue to safety. But airlines share the same dilemma: economy travellers all want the cheapest flights (why else would we subject ourselves to sardine-like conditions?) and reinforcing seats would be a huge expense for airlines, ultimately leading to higher fares.

Up against economic uncertainty and high fuel bills, airlines are also under more pressure to squeeze more revenue from their cabins. This has led carriers such as Southwest and Lufthansa to roll out lighter, slimmer seats; a practice that allows them to add in extra rows, shave weight in the cabin and reduce their fuel consumption.

The airlines say that the thinner seats are not just lighter but “stronger”. But efficient does not always translate to comfort, which explains why plump seats are confined to the premium cabins.

The question is: would we be prepared to pay for a better (potentially safer) seat in economy?

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