Overweight passengers on planes: New seat design wins Crystal Cabin award

A new aircraft seat design aimed at making travel more comfortable for obese passengers, and small children, has taken out an award for innovation. 

The Crystal Cabin Awards for aircraft cabin design were announced in Hamburg, Germany, this week, with 21 finalists considered by a panel of expert judges.

The self-proclaimed "Cabin Oscars" gave the top award in the "Passenger Comfort Hardware" category to SII Deutschland, who came up with a seat design that used wasted space to create seats that could be occupied by overweight passengers or adapted for small children.

The seat would occupy space at the rear of the aircraft cabin, where the fuselage narrows, and would be one-and-a-half times the width of a normal seat. The designers said that for overweight passengers the seat would be safer than a standard seat.

Obese passengers too large to fit into increasingly small economy class seats have been a controversial issue for airlines in recent years.

Many solutions have been proposed, including forcing the passengers to pay for two seats or charging passengers by weight. The latter solution was actually adopted by Samoa Air in 2013, creating headlines worldwide. Airlines go to great lengths to reduce weight on their flights as this increases fuel use – typically the carriers' greatest expense. 

In the United States, some airlines force overweight passengers to pay for a second seat if they are unable to buckle their seatbelt without the use of a seatbelt extender. A legal battle in Canada saw airlines forced to give an additional free seat to passengers who could not fit into one seat.

In Australia, airlines will typically try to move larger passengers to a spot where there is a free seat next to them, but if the flight is fully booked, nothing can be done.

A total of 68 submissions from 18 nations made it onto the Crystal Cabin shortlist this year. Other winners included Etihad Airways for its 'Residence' three-room suite on board its A380 superjumbo planes, and ViaSat, who came up with a satellite-powered on-board internet system that would deliver a 12 Mbps connection to every seat. Currently in-flight Wi-Fi internet is notoriously slow. 

Another winner was B/E Aerospace, who came up with a solar cell film that could be installed into the window shades of the plane, allowing passengers to charge their devices during the flight.

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