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The Healthy Traveler

Seats of Higher Learning

September 08, 1996|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Giving airline passengers a comfortable ride only sounds simple. Seat designers know better.

"The objective is to try to fit this range of passengers--from a 4-foot, 10-inch female up to a 6-foot, 3-inch male," said Raymond Tollman of B/E Aerospace Inc., a Wellington, Fla.-based aircraft seat manufacturer.

"You can't make a seat that will fit all people comfortably," he said, because bodies vary significantly within those height ranges. The location of the nape of the neck, for instance, can vary by as much as 11 inches, from a small person to a large one.

There are other design issues too. "The more moving parts, the more the seat weighs, the higher the price," Tollman said. The average retail price of a coach airline seat is $1,400, with the cost escalating quickly as improvements are added.

Even so, airline carriers say they are turning to seat designers to help them improve comfort.

Among recent seat design trends, Tollman said, are adjustable lumbar supports and movable headrests and footrests.

Efforts are continuing to increase pitch--the distance between a seat and the seat in front of it--and thus boost legroom. (In coach, the standard pitch is now about 32 inches.)

The addition of footrests is generally applauded by back pain specialists, who say using a footrest can help stretch out the lumbar (or lower) spine and remove pressure from the lower back, in turn reducing the risk of pain during hours of sitting on a plane.

Airlines see comfier seats as a good marketing tool. "One of the things customers tell us in surveys and in focus groups is that cabin comfort is important to them," said David Castelveter, USAir spokesman. For example, USAir has responded by increasing pitch between business-class seats to about 44 inches.

While the bulk of seat design changes have shown up in first and business classes, that picture is changing. Some carriers are now focusing on coach seats; others say they plan to soon. Here's a sampling of recent improvements:

Air New Zealand is phasing in a comfort upgrade program that should be complete by the end of the year.

In coach, there will be improved back, leg and head support, according tospokesman James Boyd. And the pitch is being increased by two inches. The headrest will be adjustable and have adjustable wings to provide side support for the head, as well as some privacy.

"We've taken a lot of the features in first class and put them in the back," Boyd said.

In business class, pitch will be increased from 40 inches to 50. Seats have adjustable headrests, footrests and lumbar support. First-class seats are separated by a 60-inch pitch and have lumbar support and movable bottom cushions to increase comfort.

Last year, United Airlines added adjustable headrests in coach class in Boeing 777s, according to spokesman Richard Martin.

Also last year, British Airways introduced sleeper seats in first class that allow passengers to truly recline. Seats in first class convert from a comfortable armchair to a 6-foot, 6-inch bed.

In business class, British Airways added "cradle seats," with a tilt mechanism that moves from hip level so passenger weight is evenly distributed. The seat reclines, but not to a totally horizontal position. There is a footrest and an air lumbar bag for lower back support.

Beginning in October 1997, Southwest Airlines' new 737 planes will have lumbar support seats, according to a spokeswoman.

Passengers stuck in old-fashioned airline seats can improve their comfort with a bit of ingenuity, back specialists say. If the seat does not have a footrest, make one by putting a briefcase or small suitcase horizontally under the seat in front. Use an airline pillow behind the small of the back as support; use another behind the neck for increased comfort.

The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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