Airlines Squeezing Even More Seats Onto Smaller Planes

Passengers on a aeroplane
Jack Sullivan/Alamy
When it comes to air travel these days, you can have easy access to the flights you want. You can have cheap tickets. Or you can have elbow room.

Pick two.

If you want tickets available when you want them, and you also want a comfortable flight when going there, you'll likely have to pay an arm and a leg for the elbow room. Airlines, in the meantime, are gambling that what you -- and most of your fellow travelers -- really want is access to air travel on the cheap, and please keep your elbows to yourselves.

Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported on a trend towards "incredible shrinking plane seats" aboard large, long-haul airplanes. Airlines were asking plane builders Boeing (BA) and Airbus (EADSY) to cram rows of 10 economy-class seats into cabins originally designed for nine. The new seats, just 17 inches wide, and with two-inch armrests, will bracket aisles of similar 17-inch width aboard Boeing 777 airliners, for example.

As the Journal explained at the time, the new 17-inch seat width would be 2 inches more cramped than your average football stadium seat, 3½ inches smaller than a coach seat on Amtrak, 4 inches less than what your compatriots in first class on that 777 get, and 8 inches narrower than the veritable thrones installed in movie theaters.

Now, the phenomenon is spreading to smaller jets as well.

Small Planes, Smaller Seats

According to the Journal, Boeing and Airbus are trying to stuff extra seating onto their A320 and 737 model single-aisle planes. They've enlisted airplane interiors designer B/E Aerospace (BEAV) in the effort. Last year, B/E announced that Boeing and Airbus are ordering a new airplane bathroom designed to reduce floor space to leave more room for seats.

Airbus, which currently can fit 180 passengers onto one of its A320s, wants to shoehorn in 189 seats. This will probably result in about 5 percent less elbow room for passengers.

Boeing -- whose 737 Max 8 regional jets already hold 189 passengers -- wants to add more seats to other models. Ireland's Ryanair Holdings (RYAAY), ordered 175 Boeing 737-800 jets last year, at $16 billion (at list price). Ryanair wants its planes to carry as many as 199 passengers, and Boeing is redesigning doors and scrunching rows to find room for 10 more seats -- again, at a cost of perhaps 5 percent less elbow room for passengers.

The biggest loss of territory, however, may await flyers on Airbus's A321 jetliners. Currently designed to accommodate 220 passengers, Airbus is working at customer behest to redesign the planes' interiors to accommodate as many as 240 passengers -- an 8 percent reduction in personal space.

Will passengers stand for the reductions? That remains to be seen. But if plane seats get much smaller, standing may be the only option left to us.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith is old enough to remember when it was still fun to fly. He has no position in any stocks mentioned, nor does The Motley Fool. For fresh stock picks, try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.

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well maybe if people said enough is enough we will just t quit flying then see what the airlines do , ,my wife and i are frequent international fliers ,quite often to Australia now if you haven't taken that trip you have no idea what misery is ,16 hours from LAX after we just spent 4/1/2hrs to get there in a cramped seat .last trip i was nearly thrown off the plane in LA .....,when the lady who posted people are rude on flights ..she hit the nail on the head.. .last trip when we finally borded because we try to respect the rules and load from back to front.. well this trip our seats were 2nd row front .. so we waited till we were called.... bad for us as all the other passengers totally ignored the request so everyone was seated when my wife got to her seat ......well .... where the heck is mine ??? no empty seats.. in our area ..then the overhead storage didn't have any room left to store carry on... .that done it i blew a fuse ,a flight attendent came tried to calm me down , i explained the situation ,he found a man sitting in my seat as he liked mine better.. then he found people in business class had come down in economy and put their carry on's over our seats ...... i threw mine down and told the flight attendent to deal with it ,then to add to futher misery on return flight a 300+ pound Australian had the seat in front of me ,he was so heavy he overrode the seat stop when he reclined his seat and forced the back of his seat in my knees .then to top that off a glass of red wine got spilled in my lap soon after take off ...white clothes in carry about misery for 16 hour flight ,and now the d--mn airlines wants to make travel even more uncomfortable .geeeeee whats next standing up holding on to a strap like in the subways???

August 15 2014 at 10:38 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Terry and Mandy

Smaller seats are only going to lead to more passenger anger issues. By the time you get through the ticketing, security, and the boarding process, you are probably ready to sit down in a comfortable seat and relax for the duration of the flight. Forget it, those days are gone. Many people are so rude and inconsiderate on flights. They don't realize we are all sharing limited space with each other. Courtesy be damned, they are going to take whatever space they want. And good luck when the obese passenger in the middle seat suddenly has taken up half of your seat as well. Anger, oh yes, there is going to be angry passengers.

August 15 2014 at 8:14 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
K R Hunt

The airlines are typical of the worship of the new God of America - GREED! Now seats, next parts for maintenance?

August 15 2014 at 7:32 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Everyone is back flying now and there is no room but profits are up !!! Instead of asking for 4 billion to take care of illegal kids and a minimum of 300 billion every year for the rest of the illegals, give it to Amtrack and make them upgrade everything including the help.

August 15 2014 at 6:45 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

This is a mistake. Traveling is a stressful event on its own. You add the normal stress in with a tiny plane and being right on top of other sweaty, uncomfortable, crabby travelers and you're just asking for violence to unfold.

August 15 2014 at 5:19 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to PJ12's comment

I love to travel. Always have. always will. Will there be an occasional glitch? Of course so. But glitches are a part of life, even if you venture no further from your neighborhood. From my first cruise from LA to Honolulu in the 50's, Intercontinental flights starting as a teenager in the 60's, freelancing through Europe as a younger adult, driving on the "wrong side of the road", tasting foods unavailable in the US, an overnighter on the Venice Simplon Orient Express, racing my sister through the ancient site of the Olympics in Greece to be awarded a crown of olive leaves from a fellow traveler, experiencing an evening of Strauss and waltzing under the stars in Vienna, having my feet almost fall off from exhaustion after spending an entire day in the Louvre or Vatican Museum, competing in a 12 metre regatta in St. Maarten, having my feet almost fall off after a full day in the British or Louvre, every moment has been wonderful. As an active retiree (4 flights and cruise last month alone), I question the mistakes, stress and violence you reference. After 60 years of travel I rally do not understand your complaints , concerns and warnings.

August 15 2014 at 6:24 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Saint Michael

If traveling is stressful to you then don't do it. No one is forcing you to get on the plane.

August 17 2014 at 3:23 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

I quit flying !!! Its ridiculous how airlines treat their customers.
We dont need them they need us. SW used to be good but scummy now.
I drive

August 15 2014 at 3:02 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to morphiss7's comment

I am sorry you have had poor experiences. My extended family and I are more than satisfied with the service and treatment we receive. On a short hop, or internationally, the only headaches are weather related. We receive frequent upgrades and often, when seated in coach or business comfort, we get a pass on paying for snacks or cocktails. Oh, and btw, we are not employed with any airline.

August 15 2014 at 4:21 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Gave up on airlines. Stewardess' are older than my grandmother and have the same attitude as a wolverine. If I go somewhere I drive. If it's overseas I take a cruise. Slower, more expensive, yes. But a lot more comfortable, I can stop when I want and get excellent service on the cruise.

August 15 2014 at 2:04 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Last year, B/E announced that Boeing and Airbus are ordering a new airplane bathroom designed to reduce floor space to leave more room for seats. WHAT? I'm already trying to wedge myself in and out of that telephone booth size lavatory now. Why don't I just sit my azz on the wing and save wear and tear on the bathroom door? GEEZ!

August 15 2014 at 1:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to gerbersmail's comment

Why not just have everyone use the puke bags instead. Then you wouldn't have to worry about waking up the person next to you to squeeze by them to get into the aisle.

August 15 2014 at 1:54 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

gerbersmail-we will have to take our pants down before we go in and then back into the toilet. Unfortunately I dont see a comfortable solution to finishing all the paperwork after we are done

August 15 2014 at 3:57 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

Beautiful. We're getting fatter and getting smaller space to squeeze our butts into. And if we happen to be small/thin and the jamoke in the adjacent seat is lardaceous ... well, tough noogies; it's a short flight. NOT.

August 15 2014 at 1:22 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I used to fly quite a bit for business and pleasure and usually enjoyed the experience, but not anymore. I'll vacation anywhere within a five-hour drive or train ride from home, but that's it.

August 15 2014 at 1:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply