Sept. 14, 2010 -- Just when you thought coach seats couldn't be more uncomfortable, an Italian company this week unveiled a new airplane seat that has about as much surface area as a bar stool.
The new SkyRider seat gives passengers a bit more comfort than standing up -- but not much more. The seat has been described by some observers as "akin to riding horseback."
So why would the airlines want to subject passengers to such an uncomfortable ride? Because the manufacturer, Aviointeriors, suggests that airlines could install these seats with just 23 inches of legroom space between rows. Those precious inches, known in the industry as "seat pitch," could potentially allow airlines to squeeze even more paying passengers on the same jet.
But there are questions about whether the new design would be able to meet FAA safety regulations, and whether passengers would even be willing to tolerate such a set-up.
"There's no such thing in the fleet today so it would probably be challenging to meet our requirements," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette told ABC News.
The 23 inches of space would be the smallest amount of legroom of any airline. In the U.S., Spirit Airlines has some of the most cramped -- and arguably the cheapest -- seats.
When asked about the seats, Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson said: "This is not something that Spirit is considering."
Spirit currently offers 28 inches between rows, though the airline's new seats don't even recline.
Most of the major carriers offer even more room. JetBlue, one of the most generous, offers 34 to 38 inches of legroom. That means three rows of the SkyRider seats, which are being unveiled this week at the Aircraft Interiors Expo Americas conference in Long Beach, Calif., would fit in the space taken up by two rows of seats on JetBlue seats.
"Talk about taking the fun out of travel," said John DiScala, a blogger known as Johnny Jet. "I pray to god the airlines don't get suckered into buying these seats. I highly doubt they will because they have to be a health hazard. I would expect all kinds of lawsuits from passengers either dropping dead of Deep Vein Thrombosis or anxiety attacks."
Federal Regulators to Evaluate New Seats
FAA rules dictate that passengers just need "an approved seat or berth," so nothing prohibits such a concept. But the question remains whether the design could withstand large forces and whether any needed reinforcements would make the seats cost effective.
Duquette said aircraft seats need to withstand forces up to 16 times that of gravity.
"The FAA has very stringent standards for how an aircraft seat needs to perform in an accident," Duquette said. "It would have to meet quite a few standards to be installed on commercial airplanes."
George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com, noted that airlines must be able, under FAA rules, to safely evacuate all passengers in emergencies.
"The real issue is not whether consumers would 'stand' for these seats, which really aren't standing room but more like bar stools, because if the fares are cheap enough, they'll put up with almost anything," said Hobica. "The real question is whether they're economically feasible."
Some planes, he said, are already designed to carry the maximum number of passengers. Additionally, airlines would need to add more flight attendants to comply with FAA rules to handle the increased passenger load.
Even if the seats do pass regulatory hurdles, they could turn into a public relations nightmare for any airline.
Anne Banas, executive editor of travel Web site SmarterTravel, hasn't tried the seats but has her doubts about the comfort and safety.
"With a 23-inch seat pitch, they aren't going to fly for anyone who is remotely claustrophobic or hates to be crowded," Banas said. "I don't think that most airlines, aside from maybe Ryanair or Spirit, would even consider them, so consumers will still have some choice when it comes to comfort, or what little comfort is still available on airplanes these days."
That said, for short-haul flights, some passengers might be willing to pay rock-bottom prices. Think of a plane with first class, economy and then super-saver seats.
Irish carrier Ryanair -- which has been the worldwide leader in outlandish ideas -- has even floated the concept of standing room only seating. European regulators quickly dismissed that idea. And last year, Spring Airlines, a low-cost carrier in China, tried to get regulators there to approve a plane redesign to allow some standing passengers.
While none of those plans have moved forward, maybe the saddle-riding cowboy approach to airline seating will pass muster. Maybe.