Science & Environment

Harrabin's Notes: Could saddle seats in planes help cut CO2?

In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin looks at the likely effects on the environment and health of installing so-called "sit-stand" seats in airplanes.


Airlines are pondering whether to install a new form of saddle seat that leaves passengers half sitting and half standing, and crams more people on to a plane.

Image caption Experts believe new seats could be environmentally friendly

The latest design for the sit-stand aircraft seats was unveiled in the Daily Express.

Their story complained: "Air travel gets even worse. Airline passengers are facing cramped 'cattle truck' travel conditions after controversial saddle-style seats were unveiled."

So what's this got to do with an environment column? Well, quite a lot.

Because the new saddle-style seats that leave people perched almost upright could reduce greenhouse gases per passenger, leave passengers feeling better, and even reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis.

Climate first

The aviation industry has successfully resisted attempts at UN climate conferences to regulate its emissions. But it has agreed a voluntary target of improving efficiency by 2% a year up to 2050.

Persuading some of its passengers to perch instead of slump will help reduce CO2 per passenger by increasing the capacity of the plane.

One Chinese airline estimated that such a seating policy would cut costs by 20%. If it cut emissions per passenger by 20% that would be a massive achievement in a sector where it's notoriously difficult to reduce greenhouse gases.

Some airlines are trying to move to biofuels, but they can push up food prices and cause the destruction of rainforests. A cram-em-in-tight policy on planes is better for the planet. And unlike many other aviation techno fixes, the standing seat is available more or less now if it can get safety approval.

This was confirmed by Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation. He told BBC News: "I wouldn't want to do anything to encourage flying, and I doubt if these sort of seats will be with us in any quantity for some time… but if you pack more people into a plane you will certainly reduce emissions per passenger kilometre."

Image caption With the new seats, passengers may not be sitting as comfortably as before

But what about the cabin environment for passengers? Well, we can look to the Middle Ages for a clue. Monks in medieval times were metaphorically chained to a desk for hours on end as they illustrated those beautifully embellished Bibles. They perched on a miserichord -  a forward-leaning narrow bench that held them half-sitting, half-standing.

And guess what? Modern ergonomists say the monks had it right. This is the ideal position for the body. It keeps a good air flow through the lungs, straightens the back, and improves the concentration. If you go into one of those expensive orthopaedic shops with back ache, they'll possibly sell you a seat that allows you to perch in exactly this way.

But surely these saddle-style perches could increase that scourge of the air traveller, deep vein thrombosis? Well, no. Dr David Keeling of the Oxford Haemophilia Centre and Thrombosis Unit told me: "It's pretty cramped in an ordinary aircraft seat. It's very unlikely that these new-style seats will make it worse - if anything they might make it better because you can flex your calves a bit more easily."

And what's wrong with being on your feet anyway? In days of yore, soccer fans would think nothing of standing for hours without the benefit of a bottom perch. Shop assistants stand for a living.

But here's a question: Should we be flying short-haul at all? Shouldn't we be taking the train if we worry about climate change? Shouldn't we be building communities at home instead of constantly jetting off in search of novelty? Those are powerful arguments, but they're for another time.

If the world and her lover insist on flying, they can save money and emissions by perching, not sitting. There are other benefits, too: it'll be easier to get out to the loo on the plane. It'll boost profits for airlines and tourism, and help the economy.

With that in mind, there are many people who are likely to be upstanding for the saddle in the sky.