Airlines streamline for space

Passengers feel squeeze as extra row of seats added to planes

Southwest Airlines technicians install newer, skinnier seats on a 737 at the carrier’s headquarters in Dallas. The airline says the extra row of seats should not cut down legroom for passengers.
Southwest Airlines technicians install newer, skinnier seats on a 737 at the carrier’s headquarters in Dallas. The airline says the extra row of seats should not cut down legroom for passengers.

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.

The new seats 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 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’ Airbus A320s are an inch closer together from front to back. The new seats Southwest 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 said the new seats make each A320 1,200 pounds lighter.

Southwest said the weight savings is cutting about $10 million per year in fuel spending.

In addition, the extra seats allow Southwest to expand flying capacity 4 percent without adding any planes, said spokesman Brad Hawkins, while also collecting more revenue from the additional passengers.

At 6 feet, 3 inches, 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 said. “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 Mr. 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 Mr. Strader, who lives near Nashville. Mr. Hawkins said that the seat frames are the same height but the thinner cushions might make them seem lower.

Mr. 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 said.

Then there are passengers like Ryan Merrill.

He said 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 said.

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 says. American’s newest 777s are set up 10-across in coach, with slightly narrower seats than on its older 777s.

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

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, especially important as more people bring 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 intense competition with Virgin America for customers in California.