Travelling abroad is naturally an occasion to learn new things, experience new cultures and breathe new air, but more prosaically it is also an opportunity to evaluate a new airline (even if this evaluation is based on the rather limited view from the economy seats). I generally clock enough long-haul miles at Christmas that I feel like I've figured out how best to ensconce myself in my little cocoon for about ten hours at a time; flying on new airlines forces me to modify my tactics.
Before I go any farther, I'll point out the obvious, if glossed-over, fact: every airline's economy section is pretty much the same. Tiny seats, no legroom, and the undying hatred of the airline staff if you go off-script in any way. The food is typically uninspiring and the cutlery is plastic, which is undoubtedly to reduce the plane's weight, but also reminds the passenger that he is no more than one of the Great Unwashed. The Communist Manifesto starts to make sense when you travel economy.
That said, there are a couple of differences between airlines. These generally relate to the overall design of a plane, and can be navigated with the use of sites like SeatGuru.com. Others relate to the kind of food you get on board - Thai Airways always has a delicious Thai dish on offer, while Cathay Pacific actually gives you a third option beyond "beef or chicken", namely some form of noodles. And if you're really unlucky, you might find yourself on a long-haul flight without a personal video screen, forced to die a little inside as everyone else in your row laughs at Marmaduke (this actually happened).
But, pace Slate's Witold Rybczynski, there really is more to say about seat design in economy than packing folks in as closely as possible. For example, given that the personal video screen is pretty much ubiquitous now (other than on Thai Airways), it leads to questions about where to put the controls for the damn thing. Does it go in the seat-back, under the screen? Or do you put it somewhere in the armrest?
Cathay, I learned in the last couple of weeks, goes for the former, while Virgin and British Airways prefer different versions of the latter. BA puts them on top of the armrest, where a clumsy elbow can change the channel or knock the volume to ear-splitting levels; Virgin, by contrast, goes for the inside of the armrest, which effectively limits your range of movement even further, if such a thing is possible. Over the last few Christmases I've innocently shifted in my seat only to drive the volume up way past tolerable.
There's also the seat pocket in front of you, where the in-flight magazine and air-sickness bags live. Cathay prefers plastic seat-backs (I guess because they really do think we're animals?), so this takes the form of a bulging piece of netting that fails in accommodating the book you've brought on board, while also, paradoxically, taking away leg space and making it even more awkward to try getting in or out of your seat for those leg-stretching breaks you really need to be taking.
I could go on, but these are the most egregious examples. The point, as every good architect knows, is that form follows function: Richard Branson or Willie Walsh or whoever runs Cathay doesn't give a flying shit (pun intended) about economy travellers' comfort, but it would be nice if whoever designed the interiors of the plane ever had to actually sit in the seats they've devised.
Or to put it another way, just look at Ryanair: the seats don't move, the legroom is negligible and the seat-backs are plastic; but paradoxically, it feels more comfortable, because you don't have the seat pocket or the screen controls cluttering up your personal space. It's no better or worse than a bus.
Which isn't to say that the long-haul carriers should emulate Ryanair; Michael O'Leary clearly has nothing but contempt for his customers. But Virgin, BA and the rest should remember that they aren't running a bus service. A thoughtfully designed economy section would win them more repeat business.