Just how many seats can you cram in?

It seams that all over the world the on-board flying experience is changing. For those lucky enough to be “in front of the curtain” times have never been better. There is a global arms race to snag the most desirable and profitable travelers. Business class seats must magically transform to full beds with duvets and fluffy pillows. The food must be more than simply edible. It must rival fine dining in the best restaurants on the ground. A constant supply of drinks and tidbits to eat are mandatory. Travelers are cosseted into private lounges that are exclusive clubs that keep premium cabin travelers from the unwashed masses in the terminal.

First class is a little more problematic, as a sizable number of seats are inhabited by travelers cashing in many thousands of frequent flyer miles.  Many airlines have dropped first class completely or they only offer it on high-yielding flights between business destinations such as New York to London. Airlines have upped their game in this market as well. Lufthansa at its main hub in Frankfurt has taken the first class experience to an even more extravagant extreme. Lufthansa built a first class terminal that is not directly connected to the rest of the airport. Your limo drops you at the very exclusive front door. You can get a message, smoke a stogie in the cigar bar, have a great meal before you board, all gratis. Security is done behind the scenes. If you decide to have a great bath or shower you get a collectible rubber ducky.  Once you are ready to board your flight, you are whisked across the airfield to your aircraft in your choice of a Porsche or Benz (Germans usually don’t call it a Mercedes) to your flight. Life is good in this exclusive club.

Where does this leave the rest of us slobs that are stuck in steerage? In my last post I kvetched about miserable seats on the Delta MD-90. This is only getting worse. My sources have told me that the seats on Spirit or Ryanair make the MD-90 feel posh. If you are very lucky you can pay for WiFi. In-seat video and most importantly a power outlet are available… Sometimes.  Coach still sucks.

That begs the question of just how many seats can the airline squeeze  into a plane? If airlines could sell hanging subway straps I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen. Luckily there is a fixed limit of passengers they can cram in.  As part of the certification process, aircraft manufacturers are required to demonstrate that an aircraft, in maximum density configuration, can be completely evacuated within 90 seconds using only half of the total number of emergency exits. When the manufacturer performs the evacuation tests, they use their own employees and invite the local sports teams to join in. I guess they think granny will be as limber as the local soccer team should the worst happen.

An example is the Airbus A380. For most airlines it is configured for a load of about 450 to 525 travelers in a three-class setup. The maximum allowed is 853. Will we see that many in an A380? Probably. An example would be flying a charter to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj.

Should you be worried about being stuffed on an aircraft at maximum density? I don’t think so. Many such aircraft have been evacuated in emergency situations. A great example is Air France flight 358 from Paris to Toronto. It missed the runway and burst into flames. All 309 passengers and crew survived, albeit a small portion suffering serious injures.