Courtesy of Travis Olbrich/
Technology / Aviation

Who Said Flying Can’t Be Fun?

Who loves airplanes as much as I do? That’s right, not many of you. All that cramped seating, crying babies, invasive airport security, surly flight attendants—and those are just a few of flying’s pleasantries. Some say flying isn’t what it used to be. We’ve packed passengers into metal tubes like livestock, lowered the wages of regional pilots to a $16,000 base salary, and raised the prices of tickets. But look on the brightside: your flight is guaranteed to always be on time seventy percent of the time.

Let’s throw it back to 1972. You’re cruising over a picturesque, snow-capped North Pole en route to Paris. Passengers in the lounge happily engage in conversation with each other. Complimentary champagne, an offer from the captain to come up to the cockpit mid-flight, and plush leather seats wide enough for two.

Now it’s 2017. All that hullabaloo. Nobody wants to fly. Nobody wants to smell the body odor of the gentleman spilling into your seat. It’s a drag. Your average octogenarian might argue yesterday’s luxuries were thrown out the window in favor of new seating configurations and fewer amenities, all in favor of maximizing profit. Lost to the wind is the Golden Era of aviation, lost is that 1972 flight to Paris.

They’re wrong. The past several years have witnessed an incredible influx of new aircraft onto the market. We’re talking planes with better fuel efficiency, longer range, more comfortable, and quiet cabins, and twenty-five percent larger windows (this amenity applies to those passengers in window seats only. If you are in an exit row and do not feel comfortable in the event of an emergency, please notify the flight crew immediately). These new changes are relatively new in the industry, so chances are you’ll just be starting to notice them in your flying experience.

Let’s get into it. Airbus unveiled their brand-new A350 airliner in 2015, an airplane built from the ground up. Building completely new airframes is almost unheard of nowadays—Boeing and Airbus, the two leading manufacturers, often improve upon existing designs instead of constructing altogether new ones. Geared toward longer range international flights, A350 has already caught the attention of fifty airlines worldwide; 858 orders have been placed as of September 2017. But Boeing started ground up airframe production even before Airbus. Prior to the release of the Airbus A350 in 2015, Chicago-based manufacturer Boeing Company released the revolutionary 787 Dreamliner, 600 of which have already entered into service with airlines around the world.

Bombardier plunged into the action with its release of a new range of C-Series aircraft meant for short-haul regional flights. Swiss International Airlines already operates the C-Series 100 and 300 variants on European routes. New innovations in aircraft manufacturing means airlines will begin to replace aging fleets. New planes offer a host of features that will redefine your travel experience.

In Flight Entertainment (IFE)

Following JetBlue’s introduction of modern in-flight entertainment (IFE) in the 2000s, seatback televisions have become standard across many American carriers, including Delta, JetBlue, United, and American Airlines. Smaller planes are not always equipped with seatback entertainment, but often offer wifi connectivity and other forms of electronic entertainment. Today, JetBlue offers over one hundred channels on A321s and thirty-six channels on A320s and ERJ-190s. Passengers in the 70s certainly weren’t enjoying DirectTV at 35,000 feet. Advances in technology and the competitive nature of airline entertainment means that entertainment systems will continue to improve. In fact, airlines serving under the banner of Delta Connection (Endeavour Air, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Skywest, etc) have moved toward a different form of in-flight entertainment. Using Gogo, a company that provides wifi on planes not equipped with seatback televisions, customers can search through a variety of streaming videos available over the wifi network. Gogo is revolutionizing entertainment in the airline industry by allowing passengers to stream the content they want to watch directly to their tablets. Whether through seatback television or on your own personal electronic device, there are more options in television channels, movies, games, and satellite radio than ever before.

Seat Width

Improved in-flight entertainment doesn’t mean your odiferous seatmate won’t be infringing on your personal space anymore, nor does it mean the crying baby kicking your seat back will suddenly cease to exist. So what can we expect? Let’s take a look at seat width, a standard measure of spaciousness and comfort.

The spacelessness of seats in the airline industry is criminal. Let us consider a Delta Airlines 747-400. For you non-avgeeks, that’s a long range airliner with around 376 seats (depending on the seating configuration) designed for international travel. It’s not your average regional jet.  On nine-plus hour overseas flights aboard Delta’s 747s, the standard seat width is 17.2 inches in both economy and Delta Comfort + classes. To put that in perspective, Delta’s Embraer Regional Jet 170 (ERJ-170) offers 18.3 inches of width per seat. These regional jets service shorter routes with fewer passengers, meaning that your hour-long flight aboard many regional jets could offer a 6.4% increase in seat width over the seat aboard that long haul international flight.

Seat Pitch

A fancy term for legroom, seat pitch means the distance from the back of your seat to the front of the seat in front of you. Legroom is one of the few, if not only, measures that indicates airplanes are getting even more cramped. Remember, some of that distance is useless because passengers’ legs cannot extend underneath and all the way to the front of the seat in front of them. Seat pitch never exceeds thirty-one inches on the variety of different types of planes in the United Airlines fleet, including the ERJ-175, A320, 757, 767-300ER, and 777-300ER (all planes that have been on the market for a while). This sample of planes is representative of the fleet’s entire demographic; it includes short-range, low capacity, mid-range low capacity, mid-range high capacity, long-range mid capacity, and long-range high capacity planes. Aboard a United Airlines 747-400, however, (the same used in the previous Delta example), the seat pitch is thirty-four inches. Aboard the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the new plane that Boeing just introduced onto the market, standard seat width in a United Airlines economy class is thirty-two inches. This not a dramatic increase over the seat widths of our sample of planes above, (less than the thirty-four inch 747-400), but the extra inch favors the newer planes that are permeating the market. Seat pitch and width do vary from airline to airline however, depending on the configuration. It’s hard to gauge whether the industry is moving toward more or less seat pitch and width without being able to compare current specifications to those of the past. One indication that spaciousness is trending in the right direction is that airlines have opted for manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus to deliver planes with roomier configurations. At the beginning of 2014, all Airbus A350 customers “except one low-cost carrier” had opted for eighteen-inch seat width in economy cabins. Airlines could have chosen the standard 17.2 inch seat widths, but instead went with a more comfortable arrangement.

New Windows, Lighting, and Quieter Engines

In addition to improving entertainment systems and increasing seat width and pitch, new lighting and larger windows are also helping to make cabins feel more spacious. According to Qatar Airways, “the Boeing 787 Dreamliner windows are much larger than any other comparable aircraft. This provides all passengers with unparalleled views. With our electronically dimmable windows, you can also select the desired amount of light at the push of a button.” The same features hold true for any other 787 variant in operation and many other newly designed airplanes, including the aforementioned A350. Not only are windows up to twenty-five percent larger, but new overhead LED lighting can help to reduce jet lag by replicating light in your destination’s time zone. LED lighting also sets a relaxing ambience. In addition, cabins are often quieter in newer airplanes because new engines, such as the GEnx from General Electric, are less noisy than those aboard older airplanes. Sound restrictions around airports such as Chicago O’Hare International have helped to spur engine manufacturers such as Trent, Rolls Royce, and General Electric to build engines with lower sound emissions. Engines such as the CFM LEAP-1A are “higher-bypass” engines, which means that less air travels through the core. Air flow through the core undergoes combustion, which is the main source of noise. New higher-bypass engines reduce noise emissions. From larger windows to roomier seats, from LED ambient lighting to more legroom, the passenger experience has changed dramatically on new planes.

Yes, it’s preposterous that your seat on a short regional flight is more spacious than that nine-plus hour drag halfway around the globe. But there’s good news. Airlines buying new planes—the C-Series, the 787, the A350—have all opted for seats with widths of eighteen inches or more. We’re moving in the right direction. I don’t want to suggest passengers will soon be reclining in the lounge-like seats of the 1970s and ‘80s, but I would like to propose the following. Suppose passengers’ comfort aboard airplanes from the 1960s to the present day can be modeled with a second-degree, concave-up, parabolic function (no, this is not a question from last year’s AP BC Calc Exam). The past decade marked the lowpoint of seating, spaciousness, and overall onboard experience—consider this the absolute minimum on the function. With new innovations, increasing legroom, better ambient LED lighting, and quieter engines, we are beginning to move upwards on the function. That’s right, it gets better folks. There’s a flicker of hope between all the delays and inconveniences. Aviation is on the rise, and flying is, in many regards, getting much better.