New Seats Let Airlines Squeeze in More Passengers

Seat Squeeze (In this Sept. 23, 2013 photo, Southwest Airlines aircraft technicians install newer, skinnier seats on a 737 at th
John Mone/APSouthwest Airlines aircraft technicians install newer, skinnier seats on a 737 at the carrier's headquarters in Dallas.
By JOSHUA FREED

It's not your imagination. There really is a tighter squeeze on many planes these days.

The big U.S. airlines are taking out old, bulky seats in favor of so-called slimline models that take up less space from front to back, allowing for five or six more seats on each plane.

The changes, covering some of the most common planes flown on domestic and international routes, give the airlines two of their favorite things: More paying passengers, and a smaller fuel bill because the seats are slightly lighter. It's part of a trend among the airlines to view seats as money-makers, not just pieces of furniture. Add a few inches of legroom and airlines can charge more for tickets. Take away a few inches and they can fit more seats on the plane.

Some passengers seem to mind the tighter squeeze more than others. The new seats generally have thinner padding. And new layouts on some planes have made the aisles slightly narrower, meaning the dreaded beverage cart bump to the shoulder happens more often.

And this is all going on in coach at a time when airlines are spending heavily to add better premium seats in the front of the plane.

Whether the new seats are really closer together depends on how you measure. By the usual measure, called "pitch," the new ones are generally an inch closer together from front to back as measured at the armrest.

Airlines say you won't notice. And the new seats are designed to minimize this problem. The seats going onto Southwest's 737s have thinner seatback magazine pockets. Passengers on Alaska Airlines (ALK) will find slightly smaller tray tables. United's new seats put the magazine pocket above the tray table, getting it away from passengers' knees. And seat-makers saved some space with lighter-weight frames and padding.

This allows airlines to claim that passengers have as much above-the-knee "personal space" as they did before, even if the seats are slightly closer together below the knee.

New seats going into United Airlines' (UAL) Airbus A320s are an inch closer together from front to back. The new seats Southwest (LUV) has put on nearly its entire fleet are 31 inches apart, about an inch less than before. In both cases, the airlines were able to add an extra row of six seats to each plane. Southwest went from 137 seats to 143. Both airlines say the new seats are just as comfortable.

United's says the new seats make each A320 1,200 pounds lighter. Southwest says the weight savings is cutting about $10 million a year in fuel spending.
In addition, the extra seats allow Southwest to expand flying capacity 4 percent without adding any planes, says spokesman Brad Hawkins, while also collecting more revenue from the additional passengers.

At 6-foot-3, Mike Lindsey of Lake Elsinore, Calif., doesn't have another inch to give back to the airlines. He has flown on Southwest several times since it installed the new seats. "You can't stretch out because of the reduced legroom," he says. "It's very uncomfortable on anything longer than an hour."

Southwest flier Joe Strader now takes his billfold out of his pocket before he sits down on a flight because of the thinner cushions. Like Lindsey, he felt that he sat lower on the new seats. "The back of the seat in front of you is a little higher and makes you feel like you're sitting down in a hole," said Strader, who lives near Nashville. Hawkins said that the seat frames are the same height but the thinner cushions might make them seem lower.

Strader did notice one good aspect: When the middle seat is empty and you want to put up the armrest and stretch out, the new seats are more comfortable, he says.

Then there are passengers like Ryan Merrill. He says he didn't really notice any difference in the new seats. "I'm used to being packed in like a sardine, I just assume that's never going to change," he says.

International passengers are feeling crowded, too.

As recently as 2010, most airlines buying Boeing's big 777 opted for nine seats across. Now it's 10 across on 70 percent of newly built 777s, Boeing (BA) says. American's newest 777s are set up 10-across in coach, with slightly narrower seats than on its older 777s.

The extra seat has generally meant skinnier aisles, and more bumps from the beverage cart for those at the end of the row. That's the biggest complaint from travelers, says Mark Koschwitz of SeatExpert.com.

"We used to recommend the aisle seats, because you could stretch out more," he says. He tells passengers who want to sleep "to bring a jacket and prop up against the window."

Boeing's new 787 could also be a tighter squeeze in coach. The plane was originally expected to have eight seats across but United Airlines, the only U.S. carrier currently flying it, went with nine across. Those seats are just 17.3 inches wide. So, passengers will have a skinnier seat for United's 12-hour flight from Houston to Lagos on a 787 than on its one-hour flight from Denver to Omaha on a different plane.

Delta Air Lines (DAL) has already added slimline seats to about one-third of its fleet.

"Increasing density is a priority for us from the perspective of maximizing revenue, but the slimline seats are great because they allow us to do that without sacrificing customers' comfort," said Michael Henny, Delta's director of customer experience.

Seats from as recently as five years ago weighed almost 29 pounds, said Mark Hiller, CEO of Recaro Aircraft Seating. Its lightest seat now weighs 20. The weight savings comes from things like using plastic armrests instead of metal with a plastic cover, or on some seats replacing the metal pan that holds a passenger's posterior with mesh netting. Also, the new seats have fewer parts, reducing weight and costs.

Airplane seats from 30 years ago looked like your grandmother's BarcaLounger, said Jami Counter, senior director at SeatGuru.com, which tracks airline seats and amenities.

"All that foam cushion and padding probably didn't add all that much comfort. All that's been taken out," he said. "You haven't really lost all that much if the airline does it right."

Some Ford Trimotors built in the 1920s had wicker seats. Vern Alg has flown in one.

Alg, a former senior manager for aircraft interiors at Continental who is now a consultant for the Aircraft Interiors Expo, said his first airline flew DC-3s built in the 1940s. Their seats "were cumbersome, they were heavy," he says. "They were very, very comfortable [but] they required a great distance between the seats to achieve that comfort."

Today's closer-together coach seats are responding to a customer demand for cheap fares despite higher fuel prices, he said.

Alaska Airlines is replacing every seat in its fleet by the end of next year. The new seats will have one thing that passengers asked for: power outlets.

Those outlets are especially important as more people bring their own hand-held devices onto the plane. The airline is spending several million dollars to install both 110-volt and USB power at every coach seat, said Alaska marketing vice president Joe Sprague.

That might give travelers an extra reason to fly on Alaska, which is locked in intensive competition with Virgin America for customers in California.

The seat "is where our customers spend the greatest amount of time with us," Sprague said.


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7 Comments

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Wessel

I am 6'3" and my knees already touch the seat in front of me with the old seats and more space. How do they expect me to fit in a seat now if they're loser together? Also, what about the health issues? Airlines are aware that people form blood clots in there knees when they fly long distances and can't move there legs enough durring flight... So how is this a good thing for passingers?

October 15 2013 at 11:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
db

Who paid off the FAA? Ever try to get out of a seat when the plane is on fire? or when people are panic stricken? Trust me not easy. Now it is going to be more difficult. Cost of a few lives to make a few extra dollars.

October 15 2013 at 4:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
chetcorp

The onlyway to travel in comfort is the railroads. Rent a sleeper cubical,relax and enjoy the view. Not much more expensive the first class and much more enjoyable.
Chet

October 15 2013 at 3:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Stephen

I love how they profit at the gates, special letters, special roped off lanes and your not even on the planes where you pay through the nose.

October 15 2013 at 2:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
drbobdez

Although a host of Reagan era initiatives created several of our economic problems today, the airlines deregulation act was not one of them — Carter signed it in 1978. It was a result of a decade-long effort to stem stagflation (not an issue today). Some how it was assumed that increasing competition by deregulating transportation, energy, banking and telecommunications was going to be the panacea. Large, vertically integrated, companies were broken up (e.g. ATT&T) and interest rates were increased. to stem reckless corporate borrowing. The upshot was a short-term improvement in the economy. Reagan followed this with tax relief to compensate for the escalation of personal income taxes that resulted from runaway inflation (the inflated dollars pushed folks into higher tax brackets). He, later, raised taxes three times to make up for the revenue losses. All these actions were "best efforts" to deal with the issues of the time. These are different times with different issues and challenges.
Over the past 30 plus years, the effects of deregulation have led to greater consolidation in the affected industries instead of the intended stimulation of competition. The "Baby Bells" have consolidated into three companies, the legacy airlines that survived are now more dominant than ever, banks got too big to fail , . . .Enron. Today, each of these industries are oligopolies with tremendous power. The prevailing strategy is to limit supply and use prices to ration the scarce services they provide. Prices have risen, services have eroded; competition has been stymied.

In the twenty-first century, these industries do not provide luxuries, they produce necessities. One might even say they have elevated themselves to become public utilities (along with healthcare). Any decent economist will tell you that it is more economically efficient to regulate a public utility than to leave it to its own devices. Herein lies the next challenge. Most folks believe "competition good—regulation bad" as a result of a concerted effort by the beneficiaries to lead them to this conclusion. Few, on the other hand, can explain the mechanics of competition and see it as, somehow, related to patriotism. The fact is that competition only works under oversupply (relative to demand) conditions; oligopoly is not affected by it; it is incumbent on industry members to maximize profits by minimizing costs and limiting their output.
Your complaint is not without merit. The real problem is that people keep seeing contemporary problems through time-bound lenses and consistently try to resolve them by means that no longer apply.

October 15 2013 at 2:05 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
amosbyrd

I've flown somewhere ever since 1951 in just about every type of aircraft. I'm even a pilot myself.
So, I can say with massive experience the following:

The absolute worst thing ever to happen to the flying public was Ronald Reagan's deregulation of the airline industry. He didn't enforce the anti-trust laws and we lost 90% of our airline competition and any caring about the passengers.

Now, we are in a take it or leave it situation. I think it's a GD tragedy that they ever named the Washington DC airport after Ronald Reagan. What a complete idiot he was, and now we are all suffering. Until they break up all these rotten airlines and fully enforce the anti-trust laws; we will all be subjected to this madness at our airports: rotten service, no service, rotten seats, rotten airplanes, long delays, hub mania, canceled flights, no food, mostly no free bags, cattle cars for flights, charging to use the planes toilet, and untrained pilots to boot.

October 15 2013 at 9:55 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
sumorabbi

Just pull out all the seats and stack people up like lumber. That would save even more money for the airlines.

October 15 2013 at 8:46 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply