One of the reasons flying can be so terrible is that airlines are cramming passengers into ever smaller spaces to wring the most profit out of each flight. And given the airlines’ current research into unorthodox seating arrangements, the trend is likely to continue.
To understand just how tightly packed the typical airplane is, let’s consider it in terms of population density. The Boeing 737-700 is one of the most common passenger aircraft in use today. If you’ve flown on a medium-distance Southwest flight, you’ve probably been on one of these.
The typical seating configuration of the 737-700 fits 143 passengers into a cabin that’s roughly 914 square feet in area, give or take. So your passenger population density (not counting crew) would work out to one person per 7 square feet. But what does that even mean?
Let’s consider it in terms of a typical 1,000-square-foot apartment. This is pretty close to some calculations of the average apartment size in the United States, and it has the benefit of being a nice round number.
So here’s a theoretical floor plan of you, in your apartment, with your cat (of course you have a cat and if you don’t, you should get one). I’m omitting furniture from these diagrams because (a) I can’t draw and (b) it would make things more complicated later on. I’ve tried to draw these reasonably close to scale.
One person, 1,000 square feet. Easy-peasy! Now, let’s consider the population of Manhattan. With 1.626 million people living in 22.83 square miles of space, that works out to a density of a little more than 70,000 people per square mile. Boil that down to your 1,000-square-foot apartment, and it’s comparable to having you and two friends living in that space. Not too bad, all things considered.
Now let’s consider a more tightly packed space. Metlife Stadium, home of the Giants and Jets, can pack 82,500 people into 2.1 million square feet. In terms of your apartment, that would be akin to having a party with 38 guests in addition to yourself. As you might imagine, it’s a little cramped. There’s probably a line for your one sorry bathroom, everyone’s bumping elbows and shoulders, and if you invite me, I’m that
weird cool guy spending more time interacting with the cat than with the human guests.
We’ve probably all been to a party similar to this, and it’s kind of stressful and uncomfortable. But the great thing about parties is that you can leave whenever you want. But on a 3- or 4-hour flight? Not so much.
So let’s return to that ubiquitous Boeing 737-700. It fits 143 people into 914 square feet of cabin space, or about 156 people for every 1,000 square feet. Let’s put all those people into your apartment.
This is not fun. It’s probably a violation of several building codes. There is literally no room to move, and that’s assuming that you’ve already taken all the furniture out of your apartment. The cat is probably freaked. Out.
The important thing, of course, is not how terrible this density would be in your apartment. Rather, it’s how well it works in the confines of an airplane. These are the conditions we sign up for every time we purchase an economy-class airline ticket. And everyone aboard that plane agrees to abide by those conditions for however long it takes for the plane to reach its destination.
Kind of amazing, really.
More from Wonkblog: