Thursday, May 31, 2012

Real World Bad Data: The Airlines

I hate flying.  I hate nearly everything about the entire experience really....getting to airports, the way they look, the lines, the fees, the TSA, the complete absence of food I'm not allergic to in most terminals, the boarding process, the plane itself, the proximity to other people, the feeling of being totally trapped, trying to get up and maneuver the aisles at all, and baggage claim.

Flying is terrible.

That being said, I was quite interested in reading this article that addressed why airline seats are so darn uncomfortable.  While they address the obvious issues such as increasing obesity and airline companies incentives to cram as many seats in as possible, I was struck by this quote:

In 1962, the U.S. government measured the width of the American backside in the seated position. It averaged 14 inches for men and 14.4 inches for women. Forty years later, an Air Force study directed by Robinette showed male and female butts had blown up on average to more than 15 inches.....But the American rear end isn't really the important statistic here, Robinette says.  Nor are the male hips, which the industry mistakenly used to determine seat width sometime around the 1960s, she says.
"It's the wrong dimension. The widest part of your body is your shoulders and arms. And that's much, much bigger than your hips. Several inches wider." Furthermore, she says, women actually have larger hip width on average than men.
So even back when the airlines might have made an attempt at having adequate seat size, they picked the wrong metric to play to, and everybody suffers.

I thought this was an interesting example of picking your data points.  Hip width makes intuitive sense to build a seat around, but it turns out it's wrong.

The article also has some good discussion of perception and how moving rows closer together can give you a sense the seat itself has gotten smaller.  Interesting real world applications of statistics.


  1. I have read articles that they did similar studies when building baseball parks like Fenway and that is why the seats at Fenway are uncomfortable. I'm not sure what they have used for the newer parks, but I know seat size has increased, starting with Camden Yards and working forward.

  2. Airline passenger seating has little oddities that you notice, including the height of the little tables and the amount of tilt. It is clear that someone has spent a lot of time and energy studying something about these things, and the studies affect their decisions. Yet they never seem to work for me, and I have wondered if I am just more physically atypical than I think.

    Your explanation makes entire sense. They study the wrong things in great detail.