Monday 23 September 2019

'Headroom' is shrinking on planes – and it's causing air rage, say psychologists

Air rage on the rise

Airplane interior. Photo: Deposit
Airplane interior. Photo: Deposit

Hazel Plush

When you squeeze yourself into an economy airline seat, it’s likely you’ll feel the pinch of those pitiful few inches of legroom.

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But the ever-decreasing distance between your knees and the seat-back isn’t the worst aspect of stack-’em-high air travel, say psychologists: it’s the narrowing gap between your face and the chair in front.

“Everyone has to have some minimal space,” Dr Stella Lourenco, a psychology professor who specialises in personal space issues, told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a huge problem as seats get smaller and closer”.

During her research at Atlanta’s Emory University, Dr Lourenco found that different parts of the body have different ‘tolerances’ to cramped space – and at eye level, the negative effects are most profound.

You might feel physically penned in by narrow arm rests and stingy leg room, but lack of head room can cause feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety, even in travellers not prone to mental distress.

“The head is probably the most important part,” Martin Seif, a New York clinical psychologist, told WSJ.

Is airplane headroom decreasing?
Is airplane headroom decreasing?

An associate director of New York’s Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center, Seif says his clients have been greatly affected by the seating squeeze: “Higher density leads to a greater chance of losing your temper and even air rage”.

According to British air travel intelligence company OAG, airlines are shoehorning between seven and eight per cent more seats into their aircraft than they were initially designed to carry. Technology company Travelport says the average flight now has 142 seats onboard, compared with 137 two years ago.

The race is on to maximise cabin space, creating smaller toilet cubicles, narrower aisles, and wily seating design. Even the Airbus A380, that behemoth of the air, has been subject to space saving measures: it was designed to accommodate just over 500 seats, but last year a major airline unveiled a new figuration for 615 passengers.

How are they squeezing in all those extra people?

I'ts simple: by designing seats with thinner frames and cushions than their predecessors. Without all that upholstery bulk, you actually get a few more centimetres of legroom within a standard 76.2cm seat space – but the chair in front is still close to your face, and the eye can’t ignore the density of the seating around you.

Read more: Budget airline introduces child-free 'Quiet Zones' on flights

But Airbus insists that there are no objections from its clients. “Even at the head level, we have absolutely no complaints from what we hear from our airline customers,” Anais Marzo, Airbus head of aircraft interiors marketing, told WSJ.

According to aircraft interior designers, notable ways to make the cabin appear more ‘open’ include redesigning ceiling panels, using sensitive lighting, and moving the entertainment screens and seat pockets.

But is that enough? In September this year, the International Air Transport Association announced that air rage incidents are on the rise – particularly among sober passengers in economy class. Katy DeCelles, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Toronto, found a strong correlation between ‘class divide’ (ie economy class versus first class) and passenger misbehaviour.

“In first class you have passengers getting upset relating to issues of alcohol and anger,” said Decelles. “In economy, it’s more common to have people who have emotional outbursts like panic attacks or fear.”

It's a warning that airlines should heed if they want to protect the physical and psychological health of their passengers, and maintain at least some peace in the skies.

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