Newspaper article International New York Times

In Sizing Up the Problem of Unruly Passengers, Blame It on the Seats

Newspaper article International New York Times

In Sizing Up the Problem of Unruly Passengers, Blame It on the Seats

Article excerpt

The real issue may be that most airline seats are not designed to fully accommodate the human body in its various shapes and sizes.

To recline or not to recline? That is the question being hotly debated after three flights were forced to land when passengers on board began fighting about reclining seats.

But are passengers the problem? The real issue may be that most airline seats are not designed to accommodate the human body in its various shapes and sizes.

"We are fighting each other, but the seats are not designed right," said Kathleen M. Robinette, professor and head of the department of design, housing and merchandising at Oklahoma State University. "The seats don't fit us."

Dr. Robinette is the lead author of a landmark anthropometric survey conducted by the United States Air Force with a consortium of 35 organizations. Published in 2002, the survey is widely used by seat makers and other designers.

The survey, from the Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource Project, measured the bodies of 4,431 people in North America, the Netherlands and Italy. It collected a lot of data about its subjects, ranging from height and weight to shoe and bra size. Dr. Robinette and her colleagues made three-dimensional scans of their subjects, allowing for detailed measurements in sitting and standing positions.

For seat designers, the most relevant data came from measurements of people sitting, which included distances from the buttocks to the knees, the breadth of the hips and the height of the knees.

The data gave an accurate view of the variations in the human form, Dr. Robinette said, but the measurements have not been used correctly.

Seat designers often make the assumption that nearly everyone will be accommodated if they design a seat for a man in the 95th percentile of measurements, meaning that they are larger than all but 5 percent of other men -- and, theoretically, all women. But even in that group, there are big differences.

Take the buttock-to-knee measurement of the largest men in the study. In the North American group, the average measurement was 26.5 inches, but the Dutch men were larger, measuring 27.6 inches. Then consider the fact that nobody on an airplane sits upright with the knees bent at a 90-degree angle, plus variations in calf length and thigh length.

The result is that the measurements don't really account for different body shapes and variations in the way people sit. In addition, choosing the 95th percentile of men as a cutoff means at least 1 in 20 men on the plane will be using seats that are too small for them.

"That's about 10 people on every plane who are dis-accommodated, as well as all the people sitting next to them," Dr. Robinette said.

A big flaw in seat design, however, is that men in the 95th percentile are not necessarily larger than women, particularly in the parts of the body that are resting on the seat. …

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