Besides skinny seats, slim lavatories and overstuffed overhead bins, here’s another reason to loathe the back of the airplane: It’s noisier than the front.
The noise inside an airplane is a choice airlines and airplane manufacturers make. Adding more insulation and padding makes planes quieter, but also heavier, thus less fuel-efficient. So while engines have gotten quieter to meet noise standards on the ground, the noise travelers endure in the cabin has only gotten a few decibels quieter each decade, experts say.
“There are balances,” says Hubert Mantel, head of environmental affairs for Airbus.
For private jets, 3M sells a kit that can reduce noise by 40%. It includes coatings that reduce vibration on the skin of the plane, along with insulation and pads under carpet that muffle the sounds of pumps and devices under the floor. Airliners could, in theory, be quieter—but they’d be more expensive to fly.
“With weight you can treat the noise,” says Jost Ritter, a 3M specialist in application engineering.
There are no certification requirements for interior noise levels, manufacturers say. But they know it’s a major passenger comfort issue. Noise fatigues travelers, and for some people, a single tone can be more annoying.
New planes generally don’t sound like the flying construction sites of old. Ron Bruehlman, a financial executive from Ridgefield, Conn., flew on a new Airbus A220 last fall and was impressed by how quiet it was. A week later, he was on an older Boeing 717, “which was absolutely deafening,” he says. “You had to shout to speak to the flight attendants.”
Mr. Bruehlman’s remedy: noise-canceling headphones. “On a one- or two-hour flight, high noise levels are merely an annoyance. On longer flights, particularly overnight international flights, added noise can be downright fatiguing. It also interferes with enjoyment of in-flight entertainment,” he says.
In my own unscientific research, dozens of decibel readings I took on recent flights show where you sit makes a difference in how much noise you hear. Sitting next to or behind the engines makes for a noisier ride. Being near an exit door can up the decibels, too.
What were the loudest noises I found? Overhead bin slams, toilet flushes and crying babies were up there. But the loudest readings came from flight-attendant and pilot announcements. The public-address system on planes is loud by design. The crew must be heard over other noises in an emergency.
Landing can get as noisy as takeoff when thrust reversers are used on the runway to slow the plane. On a Boeing 777, that got my meter back up over 95 decibels.
Those pings you hear when someone calls for a flight attendant reached about 91 decibels. Crew announcements typically came in between 92 and 95 decibels. A few overhead bin door slams and toilet flushes hit 100 decibels.
For reference, a Blue Line train underground in downtown Chicago peaked at 97 decibels on my meter. A chain saw gets you 110 decibels. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to have a hearing conservation program in place if general-industry workers are exposed to an average noise level of 85 decibels or higher over an eight-hour work shift.
The weirdest noise in aviation? It’s the obnoxious grinding, dog-barking noise an A320 makes when it arrives at a gate. That registered 84 decibels on my meter and sounded like a tug of war between cats. It’s actually the plane’s hydraulic system, and sometimes it lasts as long as three minutes.
Where you sit can make a big difference. I measured an average decibel level of about 75 when cruising in business class on a Boeing 777. That was fairly close to the wing-mounted engines. Farther up front was quieter. And the noise level at one of the rear exit doors behind the engines was about 80 on the same flight.
Airbus says the A380 superjumbo is super-quiet because the side walls of the double-deck plane are thick. Boeing says its 787 Dreamliner is significantly quieter in the cabin, not only because engines are quieter but also because the skin of the airplane, made of carbon-fiber composite material instead of aluminum, is more aerodynamic.
“A lot of noise is due to air passing over the wing and air passing over the fuselage,” says Boeing designer Blake Emery.
Martin Wandel, co-leader of cabin noise research at the ZAL Center of Applied Aeronautical Research in Hamburg, Germany, says that on modern aircraft, 70% to 80% of the noise comes from the wind. (The engine used to be the main source of noise.)
Window seats are usually a bit noisier than aisle seats. And there’s a cone of engine noise that adds to wind noise in the rear of the airplane.
“You should avoid sitting in the last row,” Mr. Wandel says.
The ZAL research, done in a massive acoustics chamber with a coalition of aviation companies and university researchers, is looking at noise from future generations of aircraft engines. To increase fuel efficiency, engines have been getting bigger fans. Bigger diameters mean more tonal noise at low frequencies, says Mr. Wandel, who works for Airbus.
“It could be more annoying in next generations if you hear a single, low-frequency tone,” he says. “It could be more quiet in the air but not in the cabin. So we are developing treatments and looking at different possibilities.”
One idea they’re studying: Noise-canceling systems for airplanes, which would be expensive, he says. Researchers are also studying different types of insulation.
Panasonic has developed an active noise-control system for first-class and business-class seats, tuned for different airplanes. Since you don’t want to wear noise-canceling headphones when you sleep, the seats have speakers in the wall of lie-flat beds around the head that send out waves that cancel some aircraft noise.
“It comes down about 15 decibels,” says David Bartlett, chief technology officer for Panasonic Avionics. “It doesn’t eliminate it, but it reduces a lot of high-frequency sound that’s tiring.”
This Noise Is Delicious
While airlines figure out the balance between noise and cost on their planes, Finnair is experimenting with noise in business class in a different way. The Finnish carrier is testing recordings on its in-flight entertainment system that it believes can make its food taste better.
Background noise “changes the way you taste the food,” says Maarit Keränen, head of in-flight food and beverage for Finnair. Last year the airline began offering four “soundscapes”—sounds of nature such as an open fire or running water, combined with music from the Swedish pop band Roxette. Moving away from the low hum “changes your taste perception,” she says.
Finnair conducted a test of what it calls “hearing the taste” on the ground with some people eating with just piped-in airplane noise and others with a soundscape. Food scored higher with the soundscapes. However, lack of humidity and the high-altitude atmospheric pressure of the cabin are bigger factors, she says, dulling taste buds.
The cost of comfort on airlines is going up.
The gap between the average prices of economy tickets and business- and first-class tickets has widened about 5% the past two years, according to data compiled for The Wall Street Journal by Airlines Reporting Corp. Tickets for roomy seats in the front of the plane have crept higher, while coach tickets have gotten a bit cheaper (not counting add-on fees).
A Matter of Air Space
For U.S. domestic, first-class tickets cost an average 214% more than economy, but you don’t get much more space. For international flights to or from the U.S., premium seats average 434% more than economy. You get about three times the space.
Sources: Airlines Reporting Corp. (fares); the airlines (space)
By shrinking space for each seat in economy, airlines have created more demand for premium seats. Delta says it now sells more than 60% of its domestic first-class seats, up from 14% in 2011. Premium-ticket revenue for Delta increased 14% in 2018 and was up another 8% in the first quarter this year.
Most frequent fliers regard that long-sought free upgrade like a visit from the Tooth Fairy: something they haven’t believed in for a long time. Only high rollers in the top tiers of airline loyalty programs even have a chance at that.
“You don’t have any airline being super-generous other than arguably Alaska. But their footprint is much more limited. You’ve got nowhere to run,” says Gary Leff, a co-founder of the frequent-flier community InsideFlyer.
How much does comfort cost? A first-class domestic ticket, on average, cost about $925 more than a coach seat last year—$1,356 vs. $432, according to data compiled by ARC, which processes tickets for travel agencies.
Premium round-trip tickets to Europe cost on average $5,133 more than a coach ticket—$6,215 vs. $1,082. The gap on domestic and international tickets, particularly to Europe, has widened a bit since 2016.
U.S. airlines have invested significantly in business class on wide-body airplanes, catching up to international partners and competitors in offering fully flat beds for sleeping, premium food and aisle access so you don’t have to climb over someone in the middle of the night.
“That’s driving some of the premium-ticket increase we’re seeing,” says Chuck Thackston, managing director of data science at ARC.
ARC studied all U.S. travel agency tickets sold between 2016 and 2018 in 193 markets where there were more than 500 premium-cabin tickets sold each month. That eliminated short routes where few people pay for premium tickets. Prices include taxes and government fees.
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Is paying for premium a good deal? That depends on the size of your legs and your wallet, generally, and whether more space matters for work productivity. But the Middle Seat took a semi-scientific study and compared the cost per square inch of space across cabins.
For domestic coach, you pay, on average, about 80 cents a square inch, based on comparison of the average domestic ticket price and the space you get on Delta, United and American. Based on the specs of most coach seats on big U.S. airlines, you’re getting an average of about 540 square inches of floor space, and you pay $432 round trip.
Upgrade to domestic first class and you’ll pay more than three times as much, but you get only 45% more space in square inches. That’s a rough average. On Delta A320s, for example, you get about 35% more floor space in first class than in coach based on the airline’s published measurements. On American’s 737-800s, which have seen economy seats shrink to 30-inch rows, the difference in first class is larger—51% more space.
Per square inch, the space in first class is twice as expensive as coach—about $1.75 compared with 80 cents, round-trip.
The same math surprisingly holds true for international business class—you’re paying double for each square inch. On flights to Europe, for example, you’ll pay about $2 a square inch in coach round trip, and about $4 for each square inch of that lie-flat bed.
This puts to rest, at least until the economy weakens, the age-old question of whether premium passengers subsidize economy or coach subsidizes the people up front. When upgrades were mostly free, you could argue the back of the plane was covering some of the cost of the space up front. But now space in the front costs twice as much as in the back. Those first-class and business-class customers, along with the cargo in the belly, probably make tickets cheaper for cramped coach passengers.
Because premium is more profitable, some airlines are adding premium seats, sometimes removing coach seats and sometimes just squeezing them a bit closer together or shrinking bathrooms and galleys in the rear. (A few have reduced the number of premium seats on international airplanes, making it harder to get upgrades without buying a seat outright.)
United announced in February it was reconfiguring nearly 250 international and domestic aircraft to add premium seats.
Not all of the pay-for-painless trend requires buying a premium ticket with your initial reservation, though it is the surest way to secure space. Airlines have gotten more aggressive about offering paid upgrades closer to departure, effectively selling seats that once went as upgrades.
Delta says it has been offering more opportunities to upgrade using miles. Mileage redemptions grew 12% in the first quarter compared with the previous year, the airline says. And Delta and others push cash offers to customers as well, by email or at kiosks. Those can be cheaper than buying the premium seat at booking—expect to pay about a 50% premium over your coach ticket.
Some frequent fliers use a good rule of thumb for evaluating upgrade offers: $1 for every minute of flight. If the trip is three hours, don’t spend more than $180 on an upgrade deal, for example.
With extra-legroom rows in coach, you get about 10% more square inches. Moving to those seats is typically free for elite-level members of frequent-flier programs, though lower-level members can’t book them for free until close to departure, when the best seats are usually taken. If you pay, you’re looking at a fee of about $50 each way—less on short flights, more on longer trips.
If you figure a $100 round trip gives an airline 25% more revenue, giving the passenger 10% more space is a good deal for the airline.
In international premium-economy cabins, new to American, Delta and United but a mainstay of service at lots of international airlines, you get roughly one-third more space. That can make a difference for fliers between pain and comfort. But you pay about twice as much as a coach ticket.
That’s why some international airlines have said premium economy is the most profitable space on the plane, per square inch. Airlines collect a good premium, but they aren’t offering the high-cost food, seats or service of business class. It is significantly better than coach, however, and may be the best comfort value in the sky right now.