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Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Friday, 2 July 2010 14:09 UK

Are standing seats a standing joke?

Artist's impression of vertical seats
Dream on, say the aviation experts - standing seats are a no-no

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Low-cost airline Ryanair has a plan for standing seats on its planes, but airline experts say it will never happen. Why does the budget carrier come up with far-fetched schemes which often don't come to pass?

A standing room only ticket is, traditionally, dirt-cheap. So it's easy to see why this idea appeals to both a no-frills carrier and its bargain-hungry customers.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary - fond of speculating publicly about outlandish money-saving schemes - says his airline is considering vertical seats akin to bar stools with seatbelts. Despite talk of safety testing and tickets selling for £4 or less, aviation experts say such plans are pie in the sky.

It's not the first time the airline has floated the standing seats idea, or indeed come up with headline grabbing schemes which fail to materialise. Charging passengers to use loos is another example, as is a so-called fat-tax - surcharging overweight flyers.

So why announce innovations which that don't happen? It's down to Ryanair's unique approach to PR.

"They've only got one message, which is no frills. Ryanair is all about getting you from A to B as cheaply as possible," says Danny Rogers, editor of PR Week magazine. So everything Mr O'Leary says emphasises the message that his airline strips its operations to the bone to keep costs down.

O'Leary dressed as Santa and surrounded by journalists
Journalists love Michael O'Leary because he provides good quotes and good pictures
PR Week's Danny Rogers

Even its publicity comes cheap, given his headline-grabbing ways, be it wearing a Germany shirt to a press conference after England's World Cup defeat, or speculating about charging passengers a pound to spend a penny.

"It's kind of genius. There were catcalls from the assembled journalists when he wore the Germany shirt. But that picture was used in all the papers," says Mr Rogers. "His message was that now England are out of World Cup, it's time to get away.

"Journalists love him because he provides good quotes and good pictures, and compelling top lines for their stories. And it's a strategy that works for them - they fly more people than BA or Easyjet."

So are customers likely to be disappointed if vertical seats never materialise? "No. I don't think people really want to fly standing up. They just want cheap tickets."

How many points of contact would the seatbelt straps have to have? Across the body, perhaps securing the ankles, the knees, the head?
David Learmount

Which is fortunate, because Boeing, manufacturer of Ryanair's fleet of 737-800s, rules out the concept.

"We are not considering standing-only accommodations, nor do we have any plans to do so," says spokesman Nick West. "Among other things, stringent regulatory requirements - including seats capable of withstanding a force of 16 Gs - pretty much preclude such an arrangement."

Sixteen Gs is 16 times the force of gravity, so the seats must be strong enough - and strongly secured enough - not to topple over like dominos in the event of a crash. Vertical seats would require more reinforcing than standard seats, because the passenger's centre of gravity is higher.

"More reinforcement means heavier planes which use more fuel, and that's the last thing Ryanair wants," says David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International. "They'd end up having to reinforce the floor, and possibly the bulkheads too if the seats need to be secured top and bottom. And how many points of contact would the straps have to have? Across the body, perhaps securing the ankles, the knees, the head?"

Hannibal bound
At least there's little risk of whiplash

Which sounds like the Hannibal Lecter way to fly.

"Exactly. How many passengers would be prepared to put up with that?"

Another company said to have considered this is China's Spring Airlines, a privately-owned low-cost carrier keen to increase capacity on its Airbus A380s and further drive down the cost of plane tickets for those willing to forgo comforts such as sitting down, meals and drinks. But it has since shelved the idea as unworkable, says Mr Learmount.


Any new design for seats must pass strict safety requirements set out by the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA). These are broadly the same across the world.

"These set out what a seat must comply with, such as being able to restrain a passenger during take-off, landing and turbulence, the flammability of the fabric, and g-load bearing in case of a crash," says a Civil Aviation Authority spokesman. "They test g-load bearing to make sure the seats won't topple over or come loose in an accident."

Passenger sleeps on her luggage
Fees for check-in bags on Ryanair flights have risen sharply this week

It will be up to the manufacturer to get permission for their product from the EASA, he says.

Despite the naysayers, Ryanair's press office remains resolutely Pollyanna-ish about being able to offer passengers vertical seats.

When pressed, the spokesman concedes Boeing has not agreed to its plan. "It is still at the discussion stage, yes. There are fairground rides that take people from zero to 4 Gs without the protection of an aircraft fuselage. If they can do that, and Boeing can help people get to the Moon, then it should be able to develop an upright seating design."

But is Ryanair just using the press for publicity by announcing schemes that may never happen?

The spokesman denies the suggestion - saying Ryanair didn't set out to publicise the standing seats story. It came through a TV interview with Mr O'Leary. The plan to charge passengers to go to the loo will only happen if the standing seats idea goes ahead. As for the fat tax - the idea has been dropped, he says.

Travel expert Simon Calder, of the Independent newspaper, pours yet more cold water on plans for vertical seats.

"It'll never happen, or at least it won't not for a long time. Ryanair has only one type of aircraft, the Boeing 737-800, and it is licensed for 189 people.

"Even if you take the toilets out at the back and charge people £1 to use the one remaining toilet, even if you take out rows of seats and we all stand up, and the Civil Aviation Authority agrees that's a safe way to travel, you still can't carry more than 189 people. So I'm afraid you'll still get your standard seat."

So strap hanging on a plane looks a long way off.

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