Shopping for a Comfortable Coach Airline Seat? Consider the ASSPHIT.

Here’s a travel tip you don’t hear every day: Can you guess how I upgraded all my ticketed airplane seats from basic to premium economy for free? I lost 20 pounds. With two inches taken off my waist, the spacing between me and the arms of my seat has increased to a level I could normally only get by paying for an upgrade. My personal journey of weight loss inspired some research that can benefit any cost-conscious flier, particular those who, like myself, have experienced being “gravitationally challenged.”

Passengers frequently rage at the airlines for restricting seat sizes, and with good reason. Data gathered by former Consumer Reports Travel Letter editor Bill McGee, supplemented by some research I did using while wedged into seat 47Q, shows that the smallest seat width in coach class across American, Delta, and United Airlines declined around 15% over the past three decades.   

But examining airline seat size decline in isolation understates the march of rear-end pinch. Even if seat size had stayed constant, flying would still feel more uncomfortable because the proportion of Americans who are overweight swelled from 55% in 1989 to about 73% today. Clearly, the nation needs a new statistic to assess the combined impact of smaller seats and bigger (cough) seats. I therefore charted the ratio of minimum coach seat width to the proportion of U.S. adults who are overweight.  At the risk of being cheeky, I label this variable the Airline Seat Size to Passenger Heftiness Index Tracker (ASSPHIT), which reveals a startling 36% decline in posterior comfort over the past three decades. 

The extraordinary ASSPHIT of the first class section is mainly for the corporate traveler; what’s the best coach class choice for the corpulent traveler? Delta Airlines, with minimum ASSPHIT of .23 (and even better ASSPHIT on most of its airplanes) is your best bet among legacy carriers. In contrast, one of the seat configurations of a particular United Airlines narrow body jet offers a minimum coach width of just 16 inches. Even if you have a narrow body yourself, that’s one tight ASSPHIT.

As for my recent success at improving my personal ASSPHIT, the hard fact is that most people who lose weight gain it back again. Given how often I fly, I am hoping to beat those odds. I know I have your good wishes, particularly if you are crammed into the seat next to me.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Shopping for a Comfortable Coach Airline Seat? Consider the ASSPHIT.”

  1. “the proportion of Americans who are overweight swelled from 55% in 1989 to about 73% today”

    I am curious to know how much of this is due just to the aging of the baby-boomers. If the proportion of the population now between the ages of 55 & 72 were the same as in 1989 (and other age groups adjusted proportionately) how would that 73% change? In 1989, my weight was about 7/8ths of my current weight. Let us not mistake compositional change for overall growth in obesity: the solutions to the problem are different. That is, we should not mistake a snake after a large meal for a fat snake.

  2. The rate of obesity in children has more than tripled in recent decades.

    1. After correcting for changes in both children’s poverty rates and broad racial/ethnic categories?

        1. I thought that was your job. I’ve got important things to do: to explore strange new blogs, to seek out new opinions and new unfounded assertions, to boldly surf where no one has surfed before.

      1. So, it occurs to me to ask … why correct for those things? Don’t we care *if* the children are or are not healthy, and not … *why?*

        Take as a given that many many more Latinos are in the US these days (btw are we talking about the US? not sure…), and that we are predisposed to a) having less $ and b) flabosity/Type II. We still need to work on it, right?

        My personal peeve is the emphasis on weight. I think it leads us down the wrong path. If a kid eats real food, including produce, not too much sugar, and likes to run around … maybe a little pudge isn’t the worst thing? I will never forget the article I read in the LAT once. Some public health “expert” told a little kid to *drink water* when s/he was hungry. Excuse me????? That was one of the first times I realized that there are a lot of dumb experts.

        That, and fatphobes. And I try to speak up bc there is so much prejudice. It’s astounding. One of the last forms of open bias you can still get away with. And that’s not even getting into the gender issues.

  3. Aircrew seem to stay pretty skinny. For cabin staff, hiring bias is no doubt at work, but the same seems to hold for flying crew, where airlines have less reason to care. Here’s a testable hypothesis: it’s the small portions in airline meals. These are the minimum needed to convince passengers and aircrew they have had a meal – and as much as their bodies need while sitting in the same chair for up to 12 hours.

    A free quick buck suggestion to readers: launch the Airline Meals diet. They are designed to be reheated so home delivery should be feasible. You can have fun picking the best, say Air France first class or Royal Thai. The menu can change every day, so the food won’t get boring by repetition. And the overweight will get used to sounder and smaller portions.

  4. Well.

    Bearing in mind that individuals react differently to yadda yadda yadda … I have to say, it is a mistake to look at someone and assume that they eat too much. Not necessarily. They could be eating the wrong things, or not sleeping enough, or both at once. Nutrition science is in its infancy and those folks change their minds every other day.

    I only really know about the body that I live in, and it got more fit bc I discovered a physical activity I enjoyed, and it happened to involve interval training. Lost more flab than I ever expected, while eating everything in sight, whenever I wanted. In theory, that’s not supposed to ever happen, right? Then, I injured myself and I’ve gained it all back, which is too bad. Soon, I hope to repeat the whole process!!

    I do love the acronym though. Oddly most of my flab has settled up top. I don’t know why. It annoys me just as much there as it would farther down. I don’t mind too much that people look down on me for being large, but I don’t like feeling yucky. Or needing new clothes, bc I hate shopping, and have you seeeeeen what people are wearing now? Egad.

    No one cares, but my fitness tips are these: a) do something you *actually enjoy* b) do it with a group, esp if there is a group leader who will push you c) try and make the thing you enjoy be something that involves interval training in some form, bc that sh*t reeeeally works. d) enjoy having more energy and forget about everything else, like the scale. e) try not to get injured.

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