Sociofugal Seating in Airports

Next time you fly into San Francisco, take a look at one of the American Airlines departure lounges. Rather than the typical back-to-back rows of seating you’ll find at most airports, American uses an odd triangular arrangement.


I’ve put together an overhead schematic with dotted sight lines, to provide a better understanding of the layout.

This arrangement is an example of sociofugal space. It tends to discourage human interaction. Each triangular table is surrounded by three pairs of back-to-back seats. At the corners of each triangle, the adjacent seats are placed at an angle so that it’s possible to sit directly next to someone without feeling obliged to make eye contact. In fact, the only seats that are facing one another are over ten feet apart; well outside the range where any interaction or acknowledgment might be expected.

In his 1959 paper for Sociometry, “Studies in Personal Space,” Robert Sommer found that the best seating arrangement for fostering interaction was directly across the corner of a table, at a right angle. That way it’s easy for two people to work together without enforcing constant eye contact or placing them in opposition. The American Airlines arrangement widens that angle to 120° and subtly shifts the sight lines. Much easier to simply ignore the other person, and without the encroachment on personal space that side-by-side seating might entail.

Sociofugal space isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hordes of people are packed into airports and not everyone wants to get into a heart-to-heart conversation with a total stranger. Airports aren’t the only environments to embrace sociofugal patterns either. Libraries, supermarkets and classrooms all make use of similar principles to minimize interaction.

Incidentally, it looks like there’s a new edition of Sommer’s book Personal Space: the Behavioral Basis of Design. If you’re interested in service design both it and Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension should be on your radar.

  1. I find the triangular setup to be very conducive to conversation. You see, despite normal hearing I can’t have a conversation with that person straight ahead of me, not if there is enough room to move bags through. Facing somebody with whom I can not converse is awkward, and I think results in even less eye contact.

    The slight angle towards at least one person creates a shared space, an intimacy. And encourages conversation.

  2. Jeff

    For me, I have to turn and look over my shoulder to carry on a conversation at that angle. I don’t find it conducive, but proxemics are subjective, and differ widely based on culture.

    The person straight ahead is seated outside of what Hall calls the social-consultive range (about 4-8 feet), which makes it a little easier to ignore them without awkwardness. The mandatory recognition distance for US culture falls within that zone. Between about three feet and eight feet can be awkward, as you describe.

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