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Why reclining seats are disappearing from airplanes

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(CNN) — The airplane seat recline button – so controversial it’s inspired an entire micro-industry of devices to keep the passenger in front from leaning into your space.

At one time, all economy class airline seats had a built-in recline. Today there are entire seat models that simply do not have this option.

So what happened to cause reclining seats to disappear in some places? And is that a good or a bad thing? Just because a passenger can recline their seat, should they?

As with so many things in the airline industry, it depends on who you ask.

Let’s talk about how the tilt works. Basically, there’s a mechanism hidden in the structure under your seat cushion that contains a swivel, the wires connecting it to the button on your armrest, and a pneumatic canister that returns the seat to an upright position. Seat manufacturers call this kinematics: the moving parts.

For airlines, this represents a cost, mainly maintenance: any type of mechanism is susceptible to breakage, whether due to normal wear and tear or because passengers do not treat aircraft gently.

Second, it’s a heavy cost, as these mechanics can quickly add up. Most modern, lightweight aircraft seats today weigh between seven and 10 kilograms (15-22 pounds) per passenger. Any weight that can be saved means reducing the fuel needed to transport it.

And third – and in some ways most important – it’s a disruption cost, because if passengers fight over seat recline etiquette, then flight attendants have to play schoolyard monitor. In some cases, passengers has become so disruptive that flights have even been diverted for security reasons.

Count every inch

Although you can lie down, not everyone thinks you should.

Although you can lie down, not everyone thinks you should.

Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy Stock Photo

What if the seats don’t recline?

In the late 2000s, a new generation of highly engineered ultralight seats began to break into the market, and part of what made them ultralight was that there was no recline function. . A marketing genius thought of calling them “pre-reclined”, fixing the backrest at an angle somewhere between completely straight and slightly reclined.

Initially, they were primarily intended for low-cost carriers. Typically operating flights of just a few hours, these airlines are known for stripping all the frills out of their operation.

One of the first to adopt it was the British airline Jet2, a European package tour company, which in 2009 chose a pre-reclined seat from the seat manufacturer Acro, which revolutionized the way airlines consider the seats.

Then called Clark, and now called Series 3, the Acro seat was different in several ways.

The lack of recline was one of them, but another was the innovative way the seat was sculpted from the seat and back into a fixed, concave “bucket” shape.

From the rear, this shape meant that taller passengers could position their knees on either side of the “bucket”, gaining a few inches of potential space.

That couple of inches really matters. There are about 30 economy rows on an all-economy single-island aircraft like a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, and the previous generation of seats were spaced about 30 inches (about 76 centimeters) apart – that’s is the space between a point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front, so essentially your space minus the thickness of the seat itself.

If an airline can save an inch of space per row, that’s 30 inches across the plane, which equals an entire extra row of seats.

Over the last decade-and-a-bit, a variety of seat manufacturers have been innovating around pre-reclined seats and other ways to save those inches.

One of the most famous is the German seat manufacturer Recaro, known outside of aviation for its racing car seats. In addition to fully equipped economy class seats for long-haul flights with reclining and tilting seat tray, Recaro Aircraft Seating also offers slimline pre-tilting seats for shorter flights.

The rise of pre-tilt

Replacement of recliners by

Replacing recliners with “pre-recliners” can mean fewer angry passengers.

Stefan Kruijer/Airbus/p202106006

“The airline can choose a pre-set seatback angle position of 15 or 18 degrees as part of the seat configuration process,” says Recaro CEO Mark Hiller. This helps to provide more comfort through an increased backrest angle or special accommodations complete with a specific number of passengers.

“The main benefit is increased living space, as a passenger’s living space is not impeded by reclining. Additionally, the low total cost of ownership — fewer moving parts on the seat, improved reliability and simplified maintenance — and low weight and cost, with no mechanism, kinematics, etc. required.”

The special accommodations mentioned by Hiller are often what the industry calls “max pax”, the maximum number of passengers certified for an aircraft. That’s currently 244 passengers on an all-economy narrow-body Airbus A321neo, an aircraft on which some airlines with spacious business class seats up front have fewer than 150 passengers.

It should be obvious that a 244-seat version of this plane, or even one with 230 seats, will not be the most spacious.

But seat manufacturers over the past few years have found ways to make it look like there’s more room in your knees: slimming the seat back, moving the structure to where it doesn’t get in the way of knees and improve shin clearance.

In recent years, slim seats that were previously used primarily by low-cost carriers have also found their way onto full-service airlines, not least because full-service airlines compete head-to-head with lower-cost competitors. cost.

Pre-reclined seats could be an advantage on short-haul flights.

Pre-reclined seats could be an advantage on short-haul flights.

Adobe Stock

One of the ways they do this is by offering economy seats with more legroom for sale in the front of the economy cab, which might get a more complete seat model with recline and power outlets alternative, while the regular economy could be pre-tilted and without a power supply or just a USB socket.

They’re called hybrid cabins, so watch out for them the next time you board: the seat fabric color may change from row to row, the movable headrest may disappear, or the seat upholstery may fade from fabric to leather.

So, are pre-reclined seats a net positive or a net negative?

I’ve been covering this industry as a journalist for a decade and a half and flying for over 40 years. All things considered I’ve concluded they’re a net positive where used – mostly on short haul flights of just a few hours – mainly because they get rid of that potential fight with the person in front and behind .

Long-haul flights, however, are different, and the recline on these seats is absolutely here to stay, but with the added benefit of the extra shin clearance developed for the pre-reclined seats.

Just be a good citizen of the plane and check behind you before lying down, bow slowly and smoothly, and straighten your back when everyone is having their meal, preferably without being asked by the crew.

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