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Columnist
Why can't airline seats be more like 'Superman' coaster?
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 9/18/2010 12:04 AM

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The most exciting thing to come out of this week's Aircraft Interiors Expo-go ahead, let your imagination romp through the thrilling world of an entire convention devoted to the inside of a commercial airliner-is a new seat.

The seat even has an exciting name: The SkyRider.

You probably don't even know the name of the seat you sat in last time you flew in a commercial jet, do you? The StainCollector? The StuckInUprightPositioner? The Compactor? The DeepVeinThrombosis?

Designed by an Italian company, the SkyRider features a padded saddle that forces passengers into a semi-standing position, allowing the airlines to squeeze more people onto a plane. The SkyRider would make air travel resemble a day at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, which features some roller coasters with similar seating accommodations.

"It's for comfort, but most importantly for safety," Jennifer Dugan-Savage, director of communications for the theme park, says of the seat design for the most-popular Six Flags roller coasters.

Whatever the reason, roller coaster seats are much more comfortable than airline seats. Sitting on a saddle of "Batman: The Ride" with your feet dangling beneath you is far more comfortable than squeezing into the middle seat in row 38 of the economy section on a flight from O'Hare to Newark.

During a recent family outing to Ohio and the Cedar Point amusement park, which actually features an attraction called the "Sky Ride," I walked and walked and walked until my dogs were barking. While people sitting next to me on the "Top Thrill Dragster" ride screamed as we accelerated from a dead stop to 120 mph in 4 seconds before climbing 420 feet straight up, I sighed contentedly and thought, "Man, these seats are comfy." Give me a ginger ale and a copy of that SkyMall catalog (might a $399.95 uSqueez Lite Massager make my feet even more comfortable?). I could ride that thing nonstop to Atlanta.

"Certainly comfort plays a role," says David Mandt, a spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. "Our goal as an industry is to provide unique escapes from your day-to-day world. Creativity and ingenuity has always been a part of what we do."

Not only more creative, the roller coaster industry also seems more accommodating than the airlines to a growing segment of the population.

"We put a seat at the entrance of all our major coasters so you can test it out ahead of time," says Dugan-Savage, explaining that, just as little kids dream of the day when they are tall enough to ride their favorite coaster, the big and tall sometimes face the nightmare of not fitting in a coaster seat. Six Flags lets large folks walk up the exit and discretely try out a seat if need be.

The "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride at Universal Orlando in Florida recently expanded some of its seats to accommodate larger riders. And we don't just mean fat people. Weightlifting men and large-breasted women sometimes have trouble pulling the restraint bars over their chests.

I wouldn't mind seeing those restraint bars on airplanes. It might stop folks from claiming the precious, limited air space above the shared arm rest as their personal office center, playroom or grooming station.

There would be something soothing about being secured to a seat while zipping through the air at 500 mph. Ideally, we could cryogenically sleep away a commercial flight lying down in one of those "Alien" pods next to Sigourney Weaver in her underwear. The closest we get to that now is on Six Flags' "Superman: Ultimate Flight" ride, where passengers actually lie facedown, gently held into place by a harness as they roll through curves and loops at 60 mph.

"I think 'Superman' is incredibly comfortable," Dugan-Savage says.

It's certainly far more comfortable than seat 38-E.