Slate’s architecture critic Witold Rybczynski pens a disaster of an article decrying not the state of coach class seats, but what he considers the unacceptable designs of business class seating, specifically on US Airways. He glosses over the many innovations we’re seeing in coach by suggesting, “Since seating in coach now seems to respond to only one requirement, to cram in as many seats as possible—the Sardine Principle—there is not much to say about the design of its seats.” This is, of course, nonsense. Seatback TVs and in-seat power have changed the coach experience, making 4 or 5 hours (figuratively) fly by as many passengers sit entranced by Animal Planet. Recaro has innovated seat design with thinner seats; there are seats that slide forward, allowing for (a bit) more legroom without sacrificing the number of seats; and several airlines have looked at staggered coach seating, allowing passengers easier aisle access. Plus, had Rybczynski bothered to do a little Googling he would’ve found that there is much to say about the design of coach seats. Don’t be so lazy.
He then goes to bemoan US Airways’ international business class seating, calling it “a mess,” which, let’s be honest, it is not. Why was it a mess? Because “tray tables folded awkwardly into the arm-rest.” There ya go.
He then goes on to talk about the good old days of flying (of course), saying how older premium cabin designs had more of a living room feel (which, had he bothered to do any research, he would have found to be the case in the lounges on Emirates, for example.) He then talks about how great some innovations are, such as in-seat plugs (available in coach, which, as noted, has seen no innovation) and massage chairs.
He misses the 2 real innovations of the past 10 years up front: the introduction of lie-flat beds in business class, and the rollout of suites in first class. Regardless of how awesome Pan Am Clipper Class (supposedly) was in 1972, none of the passengers were sleeping in a flat bed. Today, many business class passengers are. You can actually sleep on a plane now; there was no reasonable facsimile to a bed onboard 30 years ago.
And while there may have been living room-like features on those old 707s, there was no personal space like you find on a Jet Airways first class cabin. You basically get either a tiny apartment or a coffin, depending on how you feel about small spaces; either way, no one will know you’re there. Add this to the onboard showers on an Emirates A380 and I think the author of this piece has completely missed the point.
He also doesn’t mention that round trips to Europe from the East Coast in business class are just about $2,200 this summer. Regardless of whether your tray tables fold awkwardly, those cheap business class fares are the best innovation of all.