Are Shrinking Airline Seats Sexist?

Gillian Sisley argues in a widely-discussed piece that ‘shrinking airplane seats’ are a feminist issue, because reduced space on planes fails to “accommodat[e] women’s physical biology.”

She argues,

  • Women have wider hips on average
  • Men crowd into women’s space
  • Women are less likely to speak up to defend their space

As a result the airline industry is imposing a patriarchal discomfort on women. And as an airline consumer I want to say… right on, sister!

Except even if her three basic arguments are correct, her claim about reduced space on planes is basically nonsense. That’s because while legroom (or more accurately seat pitch – the distance from seat back to seat back) has been shrinking, her complaint is predominantly about seat width. And on domestic narrowbody aircraft that hasn’t changed.

Put another way, her basic complaint is about the width of an aircraft’s fuselage. Notably Boeing aircraft aren’t as wide as comparable Airbus aircraft, and as a result seats on Boeing planes generally have an inch less width than on their Airbus counterparts.

To be sure, airlines have squeezed in more seats across on widebodies. Boeing 777s commonly have 10 seats abreast in economy, whereas they once flew with 9 seats across.

However Sisly pins this on airlines doing “whatever they can to increase profit.” Yet the pioneers of the practice included state-backed carriers Emirates and Air France, with U.S. carrier American and United coming in later. And United’s announcement of an expected profit in the current quarter, I’m not sure what industry exactly she’s been following.

What would be the result of regulating seat size? It would actually disadvantage women, especially women who travel with families and need to buy more seats.

  • The primary focus of seat size regulation and legislation has been on pitch or legroom
  • But imposing minimum standards here basically outlaws Spirit and Frontier
  • This makes fare competition from ultra low cost carriers illegal, and doesn’t likely affect major airlines at all
  • That means higher prices, and fewer women (and men) who can afford any space at all on a plane.

While I’d love for the #MeToo era to mean free Economy Plus for all it’s worth remembering that even communist North Korea’s Air Koryo offers more than one class of service.

(HT: Tommy L.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Turn in your Man Card Gary. This isn’t men’s fault and it’s not because men are crowding into women’s spaces. If a woman can’t put down the twinkies and get off her butt and exercise every now and then it’s not my problem Big Bertha can’t fit in a normal seat. Instead of a acknowledging being overweight is unhealthy, people (including you) want to redirect the blame somewhere else – in this case on men. Might as well call us all racists while you are at it.

  2. ‘Nonsense’ is exactly the term for this deluded concept. She should be ashamed of herself for revealing how dumb she is. Many women are the beneficiaries of feminism over the last 30 years … but this kinda sets us back.

  3. In the name of equity and fairness, women should be sold business class seats for the same price as coach for men. Otherwise, all our talk about social justice is just feel-good, virtue signaling pap. Gary, I expect to see you as the champion of this new policy.

  4. Shrinking airline seats are sexist because they discriminate against men. Men generally have longer legs and find the shrinking leg room more difficult to accommodate than women, whose legs generally are shorter.

  5. My BMI is under 23 and I find the seat width on the 737 to be slightly small. Not just from the width of my personal seat but because that majority of Americans are overweight/obese so the often spill over into my seat.

    Fat shaming isn’t the answer but as a country we really do need to be ok with calling out the overweight and obese. It truly is an epidemic yet it can’t be spoken of. 300,000 people die a year from conditions associated with it.

  6. Women raised in America are the most entitled people ever to exist. They also suffer from an impressive oppression delusion and lack self awareness.

  7. If anything, reduced seat width and reduced pitch are an attack on Men. I know more and more women don’t take care of themselves today and put on weight, but men on average are taller and have wider bodies. Healthy muscular men take up more arm space than the average woman does and our knees are jammed into the seat backs in front of us. Less space for men means more discomfort at having to contort our bodies and not encroach on the space of other seats. Of course it is a ridiculous point that reflects the insanity of feminism and the feminist movement. Men ought to be standing up for themselves and exclusively hiring men and selecting men for advancement in business positions just to counter the anti male (and especially anti white male) discrimination that takes place in corporate America with forced anti male/anti white (diversity) initiatives.

    There is a solution for the seat problem. Unfortunately, too many people will always pick the cheapest option when traveling. All seats could be premium economy seats or at least Jetblue even more space seats but most of the complainers are too cheap to pay for comfort. Airlines make seats even smaller because people want to pay less and less. We should note that air travel has never been cheaper (inflation adjusted) than it was before Covid.

    People also should lose weight. Obesity is not something to joke about or to glorify in magazines. It is a medical condition just like leftism is a psychiatric condition.

  8. @Gary – Saying that having minimum space requirements would outlaw Spirit is incorrect. Spirit would simply have to provide a product that meets a minimum standard, which is nowhere near the same thing. If an elevator company is required to make elevators that can manage X weight or more does that outlaw that elevator company? No, it simply sets a workable minimum so that every new elevator is capable of moving more than one person at a time.
    As a partial aside, one major point that keeps getting glossed over in cabin space is how reasonable it is to expect that Americans can evacuate a sardine can in a timely fashion in real life.

  9. Everyone is wrong. Airline seats are racist against black and brown people because they can’t always access photo ID (to get on the plane to use those seats). They also are all low income and can’t gain free access to the white privileged seats in the front of the plane. All sounds pretty silly doesn’t it…

  10. Airline seats are too small. I say this as a fit man.

    To some really ignorant folks such as the first few commenters, nothing in this world is sexist or racist.

    Airline seats should be regulated for size on the basis of basic human decency. We need at least 19.5 inches of width on every seat. If it costs more, so be it.

    As to fat shaming, there are cases where people legitimately cannot control their weight for medical reasons, but for the most part, Americans are fat because of garbage diets and inactivity. This creates all sorts of negative externalities. Fat shaming ought to be practiced more, because it is effective and it is not per se immoral. It’s only unfashionable in western society. In concert with education about how to lose weight appropriately, as well as monitoring for mental health and eating disorders, I support fat shaming. It is the only type of shaming I support, actually. I would love to see those power tripping AA flight attendants laugh at a fat customer’s drink order, then deny it and serve only water.

  11. The seats could be anti-male sexism. The majority of people with insufficient leg room are male, not female.

    Remember Critical Race Theory? How about Critical Sex Theory? Airlines and government are sexist because they promote sexism, like seats with less leg room.

    There is a reason for manspreading. It is because there’s junk between men’s legs that also need a bit of air circulation while women close their legs to discourage junk from entering.

  12. Are we really trying to differentiate between men and women? That is so transphobic. There is no such thing as gender. Everyone knows the only thing that we can differentiate and segregate these days is race.

  13. The gubmint should have stopped this shrinking seat size nonsense years ago. And spare me the violins for people being priced out of flying.
    The cost relative to inflation is way lower than years ago. My concern is the safety issue. If the people between you and the isle are knocked out by the crash you have to climb over them. No room to step around plus it’s just annoying to have to force your seat mates into the isle to use the lavatory…..

  14. As a man with wide shoulders who is always inadvertently rubbing against my seat mates, I laughed when I read that it is sexist because of women’s wider hips. I guess “write what you know” right?

    And to preempt anyone I’m 6’1” 190lbs so not obese or anything.

  15. There’s a distinct difference between a guy with wide shoulders inadvertently rubbing against a smaller seatmate and a man nonchalantly jutting into the personal space of another passenger.

    Case in point: Ever see two men traveling together, fall asleep facing each other on a redeye if they aren’t a couple? No and you never will if the third passenger in the row is female. The male friend sitting next to the woman will inevitably crowd into her space despite them being complete strangers. Because, well, it seems less “gay” than nuzzling against your platonic friend.

    So, guys, instead of getting your feathers all ruffled up at the sexist seats idea and blaming it on Karen-type whining, try looking to a misguided sense of the reason why female passengers are fed up..

  16. 1. More stupid clickbait 2. On average women’s hips are wider, men’s shoulders are broader and men’s legs are longer. No one is comfortable in these tightly packed slimline seats

  17. Hilarious Post! When I first read, I thought “finally a post that was pro-male”. After 10 years of media slant, finally!
    Men are larger is scale- period.

  18. @Jackson Waterson
    Sexist much, Jack. Why am I not surprised. So liberals have a mental problem compared to you being an ignorant, racist and sexist fool. Notice I didn’t mention your psychiatric condition!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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