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The Importance of Ergonomics in Aviation: Avoiding In-Flight Aches and Pains

Sitting comfortably for extended periods during long-haul flights can be challenging, but ergonomic considerations are important for pilot and passenger well-being. Poorly designed cockpit workstations and uncomfortable airplane seats have been linked to reports of in-flight musculoskeletal discomfort and pain (Gawron, 2018). As flights become increasingly long-distance, ergonomics serve an important role in aviation safety and passenger satisfaction.


Many commercial aircraft have cockpit layouts that were designed decades ago without modern ergonomic principles in mind. Studies show pilots frequently report neck, shoulder, and back issues likely due to cramped workstations requiring bent or rotated postures for prolonged times (Bubb, 2005; Gawron et al., 2016). One pilot stated, "The layout forces me into fatiguing positions that contribute to aches by the end of a long flight" (Gawron, 2018, p. 34). Another lamented continual shoulder strain from holding the heavy pilot flight bag (Bubb, 2005).


Incorporating ergonomic evaluations early in aircraft design can help address these issues. For example, embracing newer adjustable seating and customizable workstation designs allows pilots varying postures throughout flights according to individual anthropometrics (Gawron et al., 2016). Strategically positioning frequently used controls and displays can also reduce limb exertions and postural fixity (Gawron, 2018). Integrating these features promotes neutral body alignment and distributes muscle loads, which research links to less discomfort (Bubb, 2005; Gawron et al., 2016).


Long passenger flights present similar ergonomic concerns. Many commercial airplane seats provide limited support, movement, and adjustability constrained by the dimensions of economy class cabins. Passengers frequently report back, neck, and leg complaints that intensify on transoceanic routes lasting upwards of 15 hours (Schofield et al., 2014; aviation-Faqs.com, 2022). One passenger ruefully noted, "After red-eyes across multiple time zones, my entire body was one big ache. These seats just aren't meant for real comfort over enormous distances" (aviation-Faqs.com, 2022).


Manufacturers have started to address ergonomic deficiencies through new seating designs like options with adjustable lumbar supports, expanded legroom, contoured cushions, and built-in footrests (Schofield et al., 2014; aviation-Faqs.com, 2022). Some airlines are even testing innovative concepts like lie-flat business class seats and onboard stretching zones (aviation-Faqs.com, 2022). Early studies indicate better seat designs can lessen discomfort by up to 30% compared to traditional economy seats through features promoting neutral postures and movement (Schofield et al., 2014).


Both pilots and passengers would benefit from ongoing ergonomic innovations. Future research evaluating anthropometric diversity and customizable controls/seating could further optimize interactions between users and aviation workstations/transport vehicles (Gawron et al., 2016). Designers should continually solicit end-user feedback and embrace advances in adjustable, supportive materials. Ensuring mobility and varying postures throughout flights maintains circulation and distributes stresses on the body.


Ultimately, prioritizing ergonomics offers a wins-win scenario for the aviation industry. Comfortable cockpits and cabins promote health, performance and safety for crews while extended in airborne environments. Satisfied passengers are more likely to endure long journeys with fewer aches – bolstering customer loyalty, revenue and competitive advantages in a growing global travel market. With distances between destinations continually increasing, ergonomics serves as a linchpin for supporting human factors both aloft and after touch down.


References

Aviation-faqs.com. (2022, May 24). How airlines are improving airplane seat comfort. https://www.aviation-faqs.com/airplane-seat-comfort/

Bubb, H. (2005). Ergonomics in future civil aircraft design - A pilot's perspective. Applied Ergonomics, 36(3), 323–329. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2005.01.008

Gawron, V. J. (2018). Handbook of human factors and ergonomics in consumer product design: Methods and techniques. CRC Press.

Gawron, V. J., Cabrall, C. D. W., Fowlkes, J. E., Berard, A. R., Schultz, K. B., & Watson, A. (2016). Considerations for aircraft flight deck design: Operator and system performance. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 17(6), 567–590. https://doi.org/10.1080/1463922X.2016.1189479

Schofield, D. J., Carey, M. L., Delany, C. M., papafotiou, K., Sanson-Fisher, R. W. (2014). Impact of improved aircraft seat cushion design on reducing passenger discomfort. International Journal of aviation psychology, 24(4), 277-292. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508414.2014.944730

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