Airbus and The London Sleep Centre experiment

Mon.28.Oct.2013 UTC

The thought of a long haul in a narrow crusher seat in economy is a nightmare for many air passengers. Research shows that comfort is the most important factor when flying long haul. Yet some aircraft have narrow seats based on 1960s measurements. So can a seat that is one inch wider make any difference?

New research into the impact of wider seats conducted by leading sleep experts (Harley Street medical practice The London Sleep Centre) shows just what a difference an extra inch in seat width can make.

A full polysomnography recording every standard physiological sleep measurement, including brainwaves, eye, abdominal, chest and hip leg movements, was completed on a selection of participants in a mock up cabin environment.  Lighting to replicate sunset and sunrise, aircraft take-off and background sounds, in-flight entertainment and catering were all used to simulate true flight experience.

The results showed that just one increase in seat width improved sleep quality by 53 per cent. All passengers had deeper, less disturbed and longer night’s sleep in the 18 inch seat, recording an improvement in comfort over the 17 inch seat across every measure.

The participants, who had no prior knowledge of the seat sizes or the reason for the experiment, fell asleep six minutes quicker and had 28 minutes less waking time. Indeed their sleep was more stable with 53% less disturbances and a reduced 11% in limb movements throughout the ‘flight’ in the 18” seat compared to the standard 17” seat.

Leading aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, who was behind the research maintains at 18” seat width minimum in its economy cabin for all aircraft and is calling on the rest of the industry to follow suit.

The 17” seat (and on some airlines even as narrow as 16.2”) was introduced onto long haul economy flights in 1960’s. In addition to the average body size being smaller, aircraft tended to be only 60% full, meaning that sitting next to an empty seats and having space to spread out was commonplace.

However fast forward 50 years and the average traveller are much larger in stature and the load factor is closer to 90% but the seat size remains the same.

Not only are we getting bigger and flights are fuller but we are also flying longer distances far more often. Prior to 1998 not a single commercial flight was longer than 7000 miles, now over 40 flights a day leave airports globally covering such vast distances.

To put the level of discomfort into context, when Wembley stadium reopened in 2007 the width of standard seat was increased 19.7” and the average movie theatre seat in the US is already 22” – five inches wider than the standard seat on a Boeing 727.