Trend in Airline Seats Puts Squeeze on Passengers

April 15, 2015 Updated: April 17, 2015

Airbus unveiled its latest cabin innovation this week, a new seat configuration that’s being described as cramped and claustrophobic by many who saw it at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany.

Economy seating in the new double-decker superjumbo A380 adds an extra seat per row, fitting 11 seats across. The new configuration, which will start appearing in 2017, will be a 3–5–3 layout instead of the typical 3–4–3.

The new seats keep a width of 18 inches, which isn’t bad considering the industry average for long-haul flights is 17.55 inches and 17.35 inches for short-haul flights, according to SeatGuru, a website dedicated to aircraft seats.

But what’s not mentioned in the Airbus press release is how exceptionally skinny the new armrests are.

Airbus also revealed its new “Choice” concept, which adds a step-down option in coach, thus creating three sub-classes in economy: Budget Economy, Comfort Economy, Premium Economy, reports industry publication Leeham News. The Budget Economy seat shrinks to 17 inches.

“The concept is intended to further segment the traveling public demand and increase revenue for airlines,” reports Leeham.

The Seat Squeeze

The decision by Airbus to go extra narrow for “price-driven passengers” reveals a lot about the trend in the industry toward shrinking seats. As recently as October 2013, Airbus called on the aviation industry to establish a minimum seat size of 18 inches for longer flights. The manufacturer cited research that found that an 18-inch seat “improved passenger sleep quality by 53 percent” compared to 17-inch seats.

Kevin Keniston, head of passenger comfort for Airbus commented in a press release at the time: “Our research reveals that not only does seat width have a dramatic impact on passenger comfort but now there is also a growing cohort of discerning economy passengers who are not prepared to accept long haul 17 inch crusher seats.”

Most regular travelers can tell you seats have shrunk and legroom is receding. It happened first for short-haul flights, and is now creeping into long-haul as well.

Bill McGee, writing for USA Today, dug out old copies of Consumer Reports, where he had been an editor, and crunched the numbers. He found that the narrowest economy seats in the 1990s measured 19 inches. So the widest seats you can find in standard economy class today at 18.5 inches, wouldn’t even have been offered 20 years ago.

Legroom, measured by pitch—the distance from a point on one seat to the same point on the seat in the next row—is also on the decline, found McGee. Looking at the big three U.S. carriers, American, Delta, and United, pitch is as low as 30 inches in coach, whereas 31 inches–32 inches used to be the minimum in years past. Spirit Airlines and some international carriers go as low as 28 inches.

At the same time that seats are shrinking, Americans are growing.

At the same time that seats are shrinking, Americans are growing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 35 percent of U.S. adults are obese, compared to 13.4 percent in the 1960s.

Ironically, movie theaters, where most people only spend two hours at a time, are trending in the opposite direction of airlines. A study named Size Matters by Theatre Projects Consultants found that movie seats grew from 20 inches in the 1990s to 23 inches today. Pitch also increased from 33 inches to 38 inches, giving considerably more legroom.

Other Comfort Factors

Although seat size and legroom are talked about most, there are other factors that impact actual comfort or passenger perception of comfort.

The biggest one is whether or not the middle seat in your row is occupied. Most travelers will book the window or the aisle seat, hoping to get lucky and have a vacant seat beside them. Unfortunately for fliers, this too is on the decline.

Your chances of sitting beside an empty seat are dramatically reduced.

In the 1990s, airlines used to fly planes that averaged 65 to 70 percent full. Today carriers operate with a load factor of 80 percent or more. U.S. airline hit a record for load factor in 2014, reaching 83.4, according to the Department of Transportation. That means your chances of sitting beside an empty seat are dramatically reduced.

Airlines can also give the illusion of more space, as Boeing spokesman Sean Griffin told Ed Hewitt, editor of The Independent Traveler. 

“A lot of the perception of comfort is visual” Griffin said. He described how Boeing was able to convince focus groups that cabins were larger by changing the contours of the overhead bins and interior lighting.

Finally, a sense of comfort is also impacted by overall customer experience—and that is suffering too. According to the 25th annual Airline Quality Ratings report, the U.S. airline industry fared worse in 2014 than the previous four years in all four performance areas the study tracks: on-time arrivals, involuntary denied boardings (getting bumped), mishandled baggage, and a combination of 12 customer complaint categories.

Despite the grim outlook for passengers, the industry is booming and profits are soaring.


*Image of passengers via Shutterstock