Ridiculous or not? Lie-flat airline seats = snoring epidemic

While everyone else is touting the benefits of new “lie-flat” airline seats in business- and first class, I know I can count on you, dear readers, to find a “down” side.

And here it is.

As you probably know, a lot of airlines have been adding new seats to their premium cabins that recline into small beds. United Airlines last month announced it would spend $550 million to install these recliners and make other improvements to its fleet.

American Airlines, in an effort to outdo its competitor, even said it would add “turndown” service to its first class cabin.

So what’s wrong with that?

Well, nothing. I’d donate a kidney have one of those seats on my next trans-Pacific flight instead of being squeezed into sardine class.

Except maybe this: When you sleep lying flat, gravity weighs down on the soft tissues of your pharynx. Your palate, tonsils, and tongue are pulled backwards, which narrows the airway just enough to cause — yep, that’s right — snoring!

“With some airlines moving towards flat beds in first and business class, what does this mean for people who actually want to sleep and not be bothered by someone who’s snoring?” asks reader Merrill Albert. “I have been kept awake numerous times by someone snoring very loudly.”

Related: Is this a scam? I’ve won a seven-day cruise! (Or have I?).

None of the major US airlines address snoring anywhere in their published policies, and I wouldn’t expect them to. That’s because it’s unusual for a passenger to sleep for any extended period of time, let alone get into a position where snoring is possible. Rather, snoring incidents are handled on a case by case basis by the flight crew.

“Yes,” admits Pasquale Goglia, “it was me. And I put my CPAP machine on. Don’t leave home without it.”

(A CPAP, shorthand for continuous positive airway pressure, is a breathing therapy machine used by heavy snorers.)

“I always bring ear plugs,” says reader Joe Reynolds. “The wax ones that adapt to the ear canal and give a good sound seal.”

Earplugs also help block some of the engine noise, allowing you to sleep. I always carry earplugs or noise-canceling headphones, and an eye mask on longer flights. It’s the only way to rest, and nothing stops a chatty seatmate who can’t buy a clue like earplugs and blinders.

Kevin Morgan, an admitted snorer, tries to stay awake on flights to avoid a confrontation with another passenger.

“I try as much as possible to stay awake on flights, but the tedium can get to me, and often I’m traveling with little sleep before I have to hit the airport,” he says. “Caffeine only goes so far, especially when the service is often slow and skimpy on flights.”

So he tries to warn anyone sitting next to him that he snores. He even brings earplugs to offer his seatmates.

“But there’s only so much I can do,” he says.

I think Albert has made an astute observation. As the number of lie-flat seats expands, so, too, will the snoring incidents. What if the guy next to you is cutting a few very loud “Zs”?

“If I did have a snorer, I would jab them awake — repeatedly if necessary — and notify a flight attendant,” says Janine Johnson. “It’s a simple matter of keeping this sufferer awake till they can sleep in private. I sympathize with the person but again, they need to be considerate of others and take meds, get surgery, or sleep before they fly. If not, they are guilty of having a ‘me’ attitude, which we all must obliterate.”

I agree with Johnson in one respect: If you know you have a snoring problem and you curl up in lie-flat seat on a 12-hour flight without a CPAP machine, you’re being selfish to the rest of your seatmates (or in this case, bedmates). You have no right to keep everyone awake.

In another sense, this is a good problem to have. It means that airlines are offering more passengers the opportunity to have a good night’s sleep, and how can you fault them for that?

An entire plane of passengers sleeping in the horizontal position would mean airlines have trashed their steerage class cabins, which probably violated several articles of the Geneva Convention, anyway.

Bring on the snorers, I say.

(Photo: Tom Masc ard/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Raven_Altosk

    I’d rather see airlines spend money on adding some additional “pitch” to the coach class seats by spacing them out a bit. The average human cannot fit in those things, and as you said, they probably violate the Geneva Convention.

  • Tom

    People snore in the regular seats already. The problem is somewhat ameliorated by the ambient noise in the cabin. I can sleep very well in a coach seat and, unless some company was paying for it, would spend in the five large on something at my destination.

  • BillC

    I am amazed that someone would complain about snoring on an airplane. Have all other problems with air travel been solved?


  • emanon256

    I have often heard loud snorers in economy. Some so loud I even heard them through my noise blocking headphones.  I just write it off to one of the many crappy things I have to deal with as part of air travel.

    I for one cannot sleep in a sitting position no matter how hard I try.  I wish I could. 

    As for the person who would poke the snorer and is calling them selfish? As much as I would want to get them to stop, I would not be poking a random stranger on a plane either.  How about all the incidents of fights on board and planed being diverted and police called?  Sounds like it would lead to one of those stories.  Yes, I hate hearing snoring, but is it possible that the person is not even aware that they are snoring.  I think poking them is taking it one step too far, though I am not sure what a good solution would be.

    So I just looked up buying a ticket for a lie flat seat to a few places the wife and I want to go.   They ran from $8,000 to $16,000 R/T per person depending on the destination.  I don’t know how anyone can spend that kind of money.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Baker/787503543 John Baker

    LOL … I knew that some claimed that different classes on airplane was like class warfare but I never that I would see someone invoke a multi-country treaty on the rules of war.
    Fact is that revenue per seat (and therefore the profit) on the front of the bus is far greater than the back. People who sit in the front will change airlines for amenities while people who sit in the back tend to move for price. More pitch would eliminate seats and increase the cost of the seat which would then increase the price which moves people to other airlines.
    Fact is that lie flat seats move people to airlines  

  • Fred S

    These are just rich white people problems. Let’s move along.

  • Fred S

    There is going to be a good amount of noise on the plane regardless of where you are sitting or sleeping, both from the plane itself (engine noise, wind) and other passengers (snoring or doing whatever else they want to do). It seems pretty silly to call this ‘ridiculous’.

  • Cyn

    I wouldn’t be making a blanket condemnation of snorers.

    CPAP machines are prescribed for those who have undergone a sleep study and been diagnosed with sleep apnea.  The problem is, you’re assuming that everyone who snores can be cured by the machine.  Snoring and night noises have a variety of causes, not all of which are sleep apnea, or can be helped by a CPAP machine.
    Look up catathrenia for one such disorder with no known treatment.

  • Arizona Road Warrior

    Over the years, I have heard loud snorers in economy and domestic first class (non lie-flat seats).  I have just “trained” myself to ignore this noise and other noises.


  • Arizona Road Warrior

    “While everyone else is touting the benefits of NEW “lie-flat” airline seats in business- and first class…”
    – – – – – – — – – – – – – – –
    In regard to lie-flat seats, the European-based and Asian-based airlines have had these lie-flat seats for 10 years.  The US-based airlines have been slow to install lie-flat seats in FC and BC.  This is one of the three main reasons (service and amenties) why I prefer to fly an European-based or Asian-based airline for my flights across the Atlantic or Pacific. 

    As a side note, I have never encountered a snorer on these international FC and BC flights.

  • Arizona Road Warrior

    You are correct…if airlines increase the pitch in economy…fewer seats thus higher fares…people are not willing to pay higher fares for amenities, services, more space, etc.

  • $16635417

    I have had procedures to correct snoring with limited success. My wife can block out my snoring with earplugs.

    I understand the argument that my snoring is not your problem and you want to poke me awake, fine…and I’ll keep falling asleep again! :) I am lucky enough to also be a heavy sleeper and regularly sleep through thunderstorms.

    Perhaps the problem is with “light sleepers”. If they cannot fall asleep when tired, why is that my problem? Could they ALSO have a sleeping disorder?

  • Arizona Road Warrior

    “So I just looked up buying a ticket for a lie flat seat to a few places the wife and I want to go.   They ran from $8,000 to $16,000 R/T per person depending on the destination.  I don’t know how anyone can spend that kind of money.”
    – – – – – – – – – – — –  – – – –
    Most people that fly FC or BC are usually on business and their employers understand the value, the benefits, etc. of flying FC or BC versus Coach.

    Another option is Frequent Flyer miles.  Last year, I spent under $ 500 (i.e. buying office supplies from Office Max; buying flowers for my mother’s birthday; eating out at our regular restuarant; having a subscription to the USA Today, etc.) and earn over 140,000 miles during the 2010 US Airways Grand Slam promotion.  140,000 miles is enough for a FC or BC ticket on any of the Star Alliance airlines (i.e. Asiana, Singapore, Lufthansa, etc.) to Europe or Asia. 

  • Clare

    Kevin, whoever you are, I would like to sit next to you (or if you have a like-minded relative, he/she will do!) next time I fly!  Such kind consideration for one’s fellow passengers seems rare indeed.  Instead, I tend more often to run into the Janines of the world… and that even though I don’t snore. 

  • Jebaker

    I flew on one of the AA new 737’s last week in coach.  I guess the upside is that the seat is so small that you can barely breathe, let alone snore.  If a seatmate could actually sleep on this aircraft, you would feel their breath in your ear.  

  • http://twitter.com/MarthaStewardes Martha Stewardess

    Snoring? That’s the least of our problems. First Class Flatulence must be addressed head on! Let’s face it, flying under pressure in a metal tube brings out the worst in all of us. Flight attendants do it too, we call it “crop dusting” as we flutter through the cabin. Ear plugs? Hmmmm, for passengers I recommend butt plugs.

  • suzyblew

    This is an increasing problem in BC.  I have been travelling on flat beds for over 10 years and the issue is getting bigger.  I think this is partly due ot the number of very obese passengers travelling in BC cabins, I guess as populations get bigger and coach seats get smaller.  (Vast majority of these passengers are not American by the way).  Ear plugs, eye mask, noise-cancelling head phones are all important.  I had one experience this year where I had to turn the volume up on Harry Potter because the guy behind me was so loud!  However for me red wine is the best solution to getting to sleep!

  • cjr001

    There’s already an epidemic of noises on planes beyond the plane’s engines: crying children, movies/music from headphones that bleed out, people having too loud of conversations, and so on.

    So, I can’t say I rank snoring any higher or lower on the list.

  • Carver

    Unfortunately, you have been proven correct.  Coach travelers have signalled that they want the cheapest airfare.

  • Geographer

    Yes, it would be nice to have a little more space in economy;  fortunately for most of us this snoring problem is not one we will encounter; but thanks for the warning if I ever get moved to try the “lie flat” cabin.

  • Geographer

    Hear, hear !!!

  • Apricoco

    On a recent trip to Australia (flying coach) on Quantas, I had one of the loudest snorers EVER sitting directly behind me.  I was in shock that this tiny woman could make a sound SO LOUD.  Like jackhammer loud.  I could not sleep, even after I had taken an ambien and that usually knocks me out cold.  I finally complained to a flight attendant and their brilliant solution made a fan of Quantas for life!  She brought me a pair of the noise canceling headphones from the first class cabin.  I slept like a baby afterwards.  At the end of the flight I asked if they thought I would be able to get them on the flight home and they told me to keep them until I came back.  It was bliss both ways. 

    Also, I flew in one of the new double decker Airbus planes and wouldn’t you know it, the seats have more pitch!  Fantastic! 

    (Quantas noise canceling headphones have a strange three-pronged termination that renders them useless outside the plane.  But I would have returned them regardless.)

  • Julie Northrop2009

    I understand that snoring is an issue, my boyfriend is a snorer and I sleep with earplugs in when it’s bad.  However, if I am an open mouth breather. I don’t know if I snore or if it’s just deep breathing.  If someone were to poke me repeatedly if they felt I was snoring, and didn’t stop after being nicely asked, I would notify the flight attendant to make a report and have them make sure a police officer was at the gate and then I would file charges of assault against them.  I’m sorr you’re annoyed, but that does NOT give you the right to put your hands on me.

  • Mark K

    I have not noticed any more or less snoring on flights with flat bed seats.  Snorers are going to snore regardless if they can get to sleep.

    I don’t sleep well on a plane anyway due to the other noises (engine, people walking around, headphones turned up way too loud, clanking of things in the galley and so on) so snoring is a minor influence over all.  I was able to sleep about 3 hours on my last flight to Europe on a CO flight with the flat beds in business.  The cost for this flight was only $200 more for business than it was for coach at the time I booked so I splurged.  The flat bed seats, while much nicer than their previous international business class seats, still aren’t that comfortable for someone over 6 feet tall.

    For me, I snore less when lying flat on my side than when sitting bolt upright in a chair, so the lie flat beds are helpful in keeping me from snoring.

  • Brooklyn

    Yes, but if we could get Congress to regulate the conditions of air travel, including legroom, then all the airlines would have to comply.  They would still have to compete on price, so passengers wouldn’t suffer.  Blaming the public for wanting the cheapest possible airfare plays right into the airlines’ hands!

  • Fred S

    But in the end, prices would still go up regardless. And there’s no way that congress is going to pass any such legislation given how airlines will lobby otherwise. If they do pass something it’s going to be meaningless like “seat pitch must be at least 20 inches”

  • jennj99738

    “It’s a simple matter of keeping this sufferer awake till they can sleep
    in private. I sympathize with the person but again, they need to be
    considerate of others and take meds, get surgery, or sleep before they
    fly. If not, they are guilty of having a ‘me’ attitude, which we all
    must obliterate.”

    Ah, the irony.  Snorers cannot often help this.  However, Miss Janine can get herself earphones, noise canceling headphones and some white noise or music as she’s lounging in her flat bed.  I hate having to listen to snorers when I’m trying to sleep but I hate listening to oblivious self-entitled people talk more. 

  • Mark K

    Boeing states that the minimum seat pitch for the 737 is 32 inches.  CO has many of their seats set at 31 inches.  Not only is this uncomfortable for the passengers, it has to be a safety hazard as well.  With the seats so close together, how can you quickly exit the plane? 

  • Alan Kardoff

    Chris, I have sleep apnea. Will airlines allow me to bring my CPAP machine without charging extra?  I can find a battery operated model.
    Thank you.       Alan

  • emanon256

    Too bad.  Not all coach travelers want the cheapest airfare.  But I suppose the majority do.

    I always by coach and I pick airlines that have more pitch according to SeatGuru.com.  I also pay extra for extra leg room seats when I am on long flights.

  • Al B

    “It’s a simple matter of keeping this sufferer awake till they can sleep in private. I sympathize with the person but again, they need to be considerate of others and take meds, get surgery, or sleep before they fly. If not, they are guilty of having a ‘me’ attitude, which we all must obliterate.”
    Hey, Janine, what would be the best way for someone to obliterate your “me” attitude? In the meantime, bring some earplugs or headphones and keep your hands to yourself.

  • Sunnykm

    Fred I was traveling from NYC to LAX in coach and the man next to me fell asleep and snored worse than my husband!  His seat was in the upright position.  It was awful.  He managed to snore on both the inhale and exhale breath.  

  • Badbadbear

    RACIST !!!

  • Sunnykm

    Here is another problem.  When flying at night with the cabin lights dimmed my seatmate watched a movie on his iPhone.  The bright, flickering light was so distracting and kept me from sleeping.  I haven’t sat next to an iPad user yet so don’t know how that larger screen would light up the seating area.

  • Dave

    Personally, I’ve always found the worst snorers to be those who are sleeping while sitting up.  The worst of all were the commuters on my train.

    Full disclosure: I have been known to sleep through earthquakes and an oil refinery explosion that tossed my brother out of his bed!

    I’m generally tolerant of snorers, since it’s not a condition that can always be cured.  If I need complete silence to sleep, that’s my problem, not theirs.  I’ve had a couple flights in planes with lie-flat seats, and have not noticed any additional problems with snoring.

  • Fred S

    I’m not saying that this shouldn’t be the case, but congress isn’t going to do anything useful about it.

  • Dillonyork01

    My ex can sit in a US Airways econ seat that does not recline and snore away  Loud as can be.  Lie flats with WALLS help keep the noice levels down where in econ there are no walls or ear plugs

  • Steve R

    I’m curious as to how many people can fall asleep amid all of the other ambient noise on a plane, but cannot if someone nearby is snoring. I suspect that number is pretty low.

    I will say that if I found myself being poked awake by someone like Janine Johnson…well, after the third or fourth time it happened, you’d probably hear about it on the news. I think it’s ironic that she accuses the snorer of having a “me” attitude when her response is entirely unproductive. Let’s review the situation: passenger B can’t fall asleep because passenger A is snoring. If passenger B ignores the situation, one person can’t sleep (passenger B). If passenger B repeatedly pokes passenger A every time A falls asleep, both of them can’t sleep. How is that better?

  • Dip

    I still envision these planes in essence becoming mobile morgues in flight where everyone has a container they sleep and they stack 4 rows high. This also woul improve boardingba la deniers sorting of luggage here you lie flat and are transferred to your next flight. No more of the beverage services on planes either….

  • Eric

    I understand that FC is a money-maker.  Just so long as the airline doesn’t take away even more of my leg-room so some weenie can sleep lying down.

  • Andi330

    I absolutely agree with this. I snore when my allergies are really bad, something that is relatively outside of my own control. I take allergy medication, but it can only do so much. If someone on a plane put their hands on me without my permission, I would file reports and make a huge stink. You don’t want to hear a snorer Ms. Johnson, carry a pair of inexpensive earplugs with you in case someone snores.

  • Ron

           A CPAP machine is defined by the FAA as a medical device and can be brought into the plane and not even count as an extra carryon.  I have traveled with my cpap around the globe and never had an issue.  I also have never used it on a plane…..

  • Lindaj

    What rich ethnic folks can’t travel first class? Seriously!!  You must not get out much!

  • Baasbaas

    I am so afraid to offend I keep waking myself up!  Snoring, drooling, it all is on my mind.  Still it is a lot more restful that economy.

  • Rachel

    You must not fly first class much…  But really, on basically all the flights I’ve been on and seen the passengers in first class, they are typically 80+% white. No racism intended, just observation.

  • bill

    cool story, bro.

  • John R. Strohm

    Ron, a CPAP is an electronic device capable of generating significant amounts of radio-frequency interference.  They may be carried aboard in SOME jurisdictions, but that does not necessarily mean they may be operated during the flight.  Check with the airline.

    Furthermore, just because the FAA says it can be hauled doesn’t mean the rest of the world will agree.  Early this year, I had occasion to fly FRA->BKK, Business Class on THAI.  My normal load is two carryons: backpack containing DSLR camera, notebook computer, CD player and Bose headphones, rolling bag containing CPAP, asthma nebulizer compressor and supplies, and other medications.  Total mass: about 20 kg.  THAI has a 10 kg/passenger carryon weight limit.  The THAI gate agents in FRA absolutely refused to allow the excess, no matter how many times I attempted to explain that this was medical equipment that *HAD* to go with me.  I finally managed to persuade them to allow me to carry the asthma nebulizer kit and the backpack.  (I think someone realized that having to divert the airplane because of a PREVENTABLE in-flight medical emergency might have caused some unpleasant questions to be asked.)  The CPAP had to be checked.  You better believe I was concerned.

    I should add that this was strictly THAI, and I suspect that it was strictly THAI in Frankfurt.  I have had zero problems with AA.  I had one short difficulty with a Delta feeder line flight attendant, on a CRJ-700, that was resolved by explaining that this was medical equipment and medications, for me, and let’s at least SEE if it will fit in the overhead bin.  (It did.)  I had a little bit of discussion with JAL in Bangkok two trips back, because the CPAP and the nebulizer compressor are both electronic devices, capable of causing interference.  The problem was solved when I explained that I would not be using the CPAP in flight, and the nebulizer compressor turned out to be on their “Approved” list.  Next time I checked in at JAL in Bangkok, on the most recent trip, the gate agent said “I have a note here that you carry an asthma nebulizer compressor, for emergency use.  Is that correct?”  Yes.  It was no problem, now that they knew about it.

  • http://twitter.com/travelingiraffe Crissy

    I’m sure there will be issues, just as there are with reclining seats and arm rests.  But, I’m sure they’ll be even more isolated.  It would probably help if the airlines handed out ear plugs to passengers in lie flat seat cabins. But that might cost money, ACK!

  • ChrisY

    I believe this is what’s referred to as a “first world problem”

  • Beachglass

    Agreed on the expense – would rather spend it at the destination, not on the plane hours.  Poking a stranger?  I probably wouldn’t.  I will jab my husband (and he me, truth be told) when snoring…. but then ~ if they were close enough (which in coach they certainly are) I might be tempted to do a little passive agressive nudging….repeated nudging….they don’t usually notice – they just shift position and sometimes the sound is reduced (speaking from experience at home, doncha know)

  • Molly8061

    I too am upset that the airlines spend so much to make those in First and Biz comfy while seemingly working their hardest to insure that those in Coach have a miserable flying experience.  The pitch is unhealthy and unbearable.  Love Jet Blue – not only is their pitch more generous than anyone else’s, but for a little bit more, you can even buy more pitch.  SMART!  Too bad they don’t fly to Europe.
    Also, our domestic airlines have competely ignored the Economy Plus concept. Air France, British Air, Qantas, Air New Zealand, does this class of service brilliantly.  Why AA, UA, CO, DL etc haven’t embraced this is a shame.  UA’s extra pitch isn’t the same.

    Fortunately, I’m often in Biz Class because I’m often flying on the company “dime”, but I’ve noticed just as many snorers in coach as I have in biz class. I wear earplugs and do my best to cope as I’m a light sleeper.

    Fred S, and Geographer – Your racist  – and untrue – comments have no place here and I wish the moderator would remove them.  

  • Bidi bidi

    My husband snores when he falls asleep  in flight, but we found the Breathe Max Nasal Breather online and ordered it.  It stops his  snoring and allows me to sleep and we do not have to worry that he is disturbing other passengers.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly


  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    It was a JOKE, ppl. Get over it.

  • emanon256

    Don’t forget the male part too.  They are typically White Males.

  • Paciftravl

    The Australian overseas carrier is QANTAS, not Quantas although it’s pronounced that way,  and should be spelled all caps because it is an acronym: Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services.
    NEVER Quantas.

  • Leslie

    I’m sure that every snorer is different, but in the case of my husband, I know he would snore in economy OR first class.  It’s all in how his neck is positioned.  Personally, I know I’m a light sleeper, and anyone around me making even the slightest bit of noise will wake me up, but I don’t expect the other passengers around me to cater to my sleeping needs.  It’s a plane, not a hotel.  If I think there’s any chance I might want to sleep on the plane, I bring my earplugs and a bottle of Tylenol PM.  Works like a charm!

  • Frequent Traveler

    I’ve travelled in business class for work many times and I haven’t found snoring to be too big of an issue.  I find the plane’s background noise so loud that I often don’t hear it.  I usually bring earplugs and this typically does a good job.

    What I find worse than snoring, in any seat class, is body odor.  I recently was on a 15 hour flight to Australia in business class and had to endure sitting near the most foul smelling man I had smelled in my life.  His offending odor reeked throughout the cabin and because his body odor wasn’t enough, he proceeded to take off his shoes as well.  You could tell this made everyone uncomfortable, including the flight attendants.  Next time, I will bring Febreeze along with my earplugs.  Don’t get offended if I spray Febreeze at you because you thought it was a good idea to not shower for 2 weeks before getting on a 15 hour flight!

  • Claire

    Noise cancelling headphones are well padded, quite comfortable and cost far less than a front-of-plane seat. Plug ’em into the plane’s entertainment system and tune into your music of choice. G’night.

  • Linda Bator

    Actually, they give you the noise-cancelling headphones, so really don’t see what the problem is?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3NEI5VPR3OHW6EUIOQC54YZFEE Joseph Daniels

    Janine Johnson best think twice about startling a snorer with a jab.  If she had me as seat mate she would be in deep trouble.  I attack when anything like that is done to me.  Even my wife wakes me by grabbing a toe a shaking it and quietly saying my name.  I have PTSD left over from from Viet Nam.  Along with PTSD I snore.  Loudly and have apenea.  If I could get my CPAP through security without be accused of being a terrorist plus put it on while stuffed in seat I would.  If Janine will be that aggressive the person she tries to stop from snoring she will receive what she deserves whether or not she really is female.