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Monday, 23 October, 2000, 17:02 GMT 18:02 UK
The seats of discontent

The tragic death of an airline passenger from so-called "economy class syndrome" has highlighted conditions for those of us who fly in the cheap seats.

Nervous flyers may board an airliner fearing a terrorist bomb or a mid-air collision. But who would give a thought to the dangers posed by a cramped economy seat?

Cabin crew attend to upper class passengers
Legroom: You get what you pay for
Emma Christoffersen, a "fit and healthy" 28-year-old according to her fiancé, died from deep vein thrombosis after disembarking in London from a long-haul flight from Australia.

This blood clotting condition, while certainly not confined to airline passengers, is increasingly becoming known as "economy class syndrome".

The Aviation Health Institute (AHI) estimates 30,000 passengers in the UK experience these blood clots each year. Several die from it.

The combination of tight legroom and dehydration, familiar to those seated in "cattle class", is being blamed.

Squeezed in

Veteran economy travellers who suspect they are being squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces by the airlines may have a point.

The AHI says some major carriers have shaved valuable inches from economy seating since the 1980s.

The "pitch" - the distance between your seat-back and the one in front - can easily be changed by an aeroplane's operator.

An airport queue
So many passengers, so little legroom
The UK law sets a minimum pitch of 26 inches, the distance deemed necessary to allow passengers to get out of their seats in an emergency.

The Consumers' Association thinks 31 inches is the minimum pitch required to afford passengers any real comfort.

On long-haul flights airlines rarely exceed this pitch by more than a few inches.

On budget and charter aircraft, the legroom provision can be even grimmer. Some barely surpass the legal minimum.

Population growth

The Civil Aviation Authority is re-examining its rules on cabin spacing, fearing that Britons are fast outgrowing the seats provided for them.

Travellers, particularly the tall, hoping to supplement the meagre pitch of their seat by stretching out into an empty neighbouring slot are increasingly being disappointed.

As are those banking on aisle or emergency exit seats. The airlines have become adept at filling their aircraft to capacity, says Dr George Williams from Cranfield University's College of Aeronautics.

Economy deluxe: Big seat with no frills
"Before the industry was deregulated, aircraft were usually operating at around two-thirds full. Today, at peak times, there can be almost no spare seats. On average they are around 75% full."

Dr Williams says airlines have changed their ticketing to "extract as much revenue as possible" from each flight.

With as many as 100 different fares on offer for the same route - all with their own special restrictions - there is seat price to suit every pocket.

Low cost and student fares have tempted many of those with modest incomes into the "jet set".

Row to go

Several UK airlines maintain that these passengers will choose cheap, cramped seats over spacious, and thus more costly, ones.

American Airlines has vowed to remove two rows of seats from its jets, giving each economy passenger an egalitarian extra five inches of space.

Other airlines are allowing passengers to buy their way to comfort.

The Airbus A3XX
Big plane, more legroom?
"Some are introducing economy deluxe seating - business class seats without the other frills business passengers enjoy," says Dr Williams.

The price premium paid by economy "plus" flyers more than makes up for the loss of a few cheap, cramped seats. The weight saving of losing budget travellers, their luggage and meals also makes economic sense for the carriers.

Dr Williams says the arrival of wide-bodied airliners, such as the Airbus A3XX super jumbo, will give economy passengers more space in which to get up and stretch their legs.

Whether airlines will actually place the seats further apart is another matter.

Perk wars

The plight of those who occupy today's economy class is perhaps made harder to tolerate considering the airlines' battle over upper class perks.

The companies spent as much as $4bn last year vying for the lucrative business traveller.

For example, Qantas gives its business passengers 50 inches of pitch.

An upper class bedseat
Deep sleep: A dream for economy flyers
Fully reclining "bedseats" are also on offer. British Airways was told by NASA experts humans can only enter refreshing REM sleep when prone, so it introduced the "mini-sleeper".

For those closer to the aircraft's tail, the only hope of getting to sleep may be to count the pounds the cheap seat has saved them.

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See also:

23 Oct 00 | C-D
Deep vein thrombosis
20 Oct 00 | UK
Join the air's upper class
23 Jun 00 | Business
The height of luxury
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