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New seats let airlines squeeze in more passengers

By Joshua Freed

AP Airlines Writer

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 09:47 a.m. HST, Oct 15, 2013


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 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's says the new seats make each A320 1,200 pounds lighter. Southwest says 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, 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 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 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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peanutgallery wrote:
Bad news for flyers. They keep doing this because the public tolerates it. How anyone tolerates United Airlines is beyond me.
on October 15,2013 | 03:11AM
Uncleart66 wrote:
Please don't buy their shares. They treat their customers poorly. That model will fail.
on October 15,2013 | 03:21AM
inlanikai wrote:
10 across on the new AA 777-300 with a 31" pitch and a 17" width is absurd. These are international long-haul aircraft intended for flights longer than most people are awake in a normal day. And don't get me started on the service. Just wait till the brain-trust at US (desp)Air starts running the show at AA. Can you say "moo"?
on October 15,2013 | 03:27AM
allie wrote:
agree..ordeal city
on October 15,2013 | 06:46AM
mikethenovice wrote:
yikes
on October 15,2013 | 08:09AM
kahuku01 wrote:
The airlines main focus is to make as much money by getting as many passengers on the plane irregardless of how passenger's back end hurts after a long flight. They don't take into consideration the main issue, comfort for the passenger especially sitting on a hard bottom seat for over 5 hours or more. I would consider (firm believer) that the seats should be built with extremely soft thick cushion, so that passengers that travel long flights wouldn't have to deal with the agonizing pain on the back end and lower back. The airlines have continually disregarded the main issue of the traveling population. Uncomfortable seats, especially when the bottom cushions are as hard as rock, and it has become unbearable to seat in a chair for hours. The airlines have totally missed the main issue. It's not how many seats that may be squeezed into a plane but how the seats are made to provide comfort, especially making the bottom cushion thicker so that passengers would enjoy sitting on a long flight without having to deal with back end and lower back discomfort. It's not all about making more money by making seats smaller and adding six more seats to the plane but by providing much more comfortable seats. It's all about the passenger's comfort because without passengers, the airlines won't be able to survive.
on October 15,2013 | 04:41AM
justchecking wrote:
if all airlines are changing their seats, what other options do consumers have? if new, uncomfortable seats are installed by all airlines, then definitely do not fly united. bad enough having horrible seating; then you have to put up with horrible service by very nasty flight attendants. worse airline ever.
on October 15,2013 | 05:08AM
inverse wrote:
The options are upgrade to economy plus, first class, fly another airline although all are doing the same thing, go by train, car, boat or just don't travel. Another option being considered by airlines is for a passenger to buy two tickets so that they are guaranteed an empty seat next to them.
on October 15,2013 | 10:28AM
allie wrote:
true..many don't want to come to hawaii because of this discomfort and expense
on October 15,2013 | 06:47AM
mikethenovice wrote:
allie came to hawaii on a plane
on October 15,2013 | 08:10AM
mikethenovice wrote:
My airline stocks have doubled in the last year because of these changes. I'll use that money to resubscribe to the SA.
on October 15,2013 | 08:13AM
Wahiawamauka wrote:
I used to fly at least once a year to the mainland to visit family. Now I'm lucky if I go once every two years. It's as easy as that.
on October 15,2013 | 05:27AM
cojef wrote:
Airlines corporate officers should fly in coach on flights over 4 hours and then they can decide if it is fair to the passengers to have travel like animals in yokes(teeny seats). It reminds me of the cattle cars used to transport animals to slaughter. We used to travel all over Europe from California but do not anymore since on long flights with frequents stop-overs to the final destination takes all the fun out of traveling to Europe or Japan.
on October 15,2013 | 05:35AM
inHilo wrote:
Sad to see greed become the choice of the day. If you doubt there is a great divide between rich and poor, take a flight and see how first-class passengers are treated, then go back into steerage.
on October 15,2013 | 06:05AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
FTA: 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.

Yup, it's good to be the 1%.


on October 15,2013 | 07:57AM
purigorota wrote:
What next? Grab bar and straps so people can stand and fly?
on October 15,2013 | 06:22AM
mikethenovice wrote:
Like TheBus?
on October 15,2013 | 08:10AM
krusha wrote:
Just flew on Allegiant air and noticed their planes don't even have restrooms in the back of the plane probably to squeeze in more seats. The restrooms in the middle of the plane was so full of crap at the end of the flight that it wouldn't even flush anymore... At least they didn't charge the passengers extra for each trip to the toilet.
on October 15,2013 | 06:41AM
Mike174 wrote:
Can hardly wait for the bench seat installation.
on October 15,2013 | 07:09AM
mikethenovice wrote:
Still have my 1968 Chevy bench seat.
on October 15,2013 | 08:11AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
I'm glad to hear about this. If there is one thing that has annoyed me it is that excess room between seats on airplanes.
on October 15,2013 | 07:52AM
mikethenovice wrote:
Murphy's laws always has it so a wide load sit next to me.
on October 15,2013 | 08:09AM
Bdpapa wrote:
The FCC needs to get involved and set the amount of space each passenger needs for a safe exit in the event of an emergency. Its bad enough with the rising cost of air travel and now this.
on October 15,2013 | 08:54AM
teatime808 wrote:
The first question that comes to mind is: "is it safe with less padding?" If, in the event of severe turbulence, a hard or crash landing, will the passengers have a better or worse chance to avoid injury or death? The public needs to stop looking for the cheapest fares and flying period. It's just a vicious circle that we are creating ourselves because of our own selfishness and greed. Do the logic. We want to see grandma, but don't think seeing her is worth more money, look for the cheapest airfare online and tolerate this madness. What we need is less competition between the airlines. Yes, the fares will be much higher but wouldn't you rather have a better chance to travel in safety and comfort than what we have now?
on October 15,2013 | 10:54AM
lokela wrote:
Now the big guys got to pay for 3 seats instead of 2.
on October 15,2013 | 11:35AM
PancitNoodles wrote:
http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/obese-man-forced-buy-plane-tickets-seats-rows-article-1.1484738
on October 15,2013 | 01:47PM
hikine wrote:
Sitting for five hours on a flat seat is very uncomfortable. I flew United once and it was like a sardine can with their six seats across airplanes. Thank God I had the aisle seat because my seat mate and his friend were both on the husky side. I had to have the arm rest up so the guy could have more width room and took a quarter of my seat. Knee space was ridiculously non existent for both of them. Now with the new seat configuration it'll be more claustrophobic. I'm of smaller stature and if I feel boxed in I just wonder how bigger people felt like. Also flew Hawaiian and their seat padding is getting flat probably because of more passengers, I can feel the hardness and had to keep squirming to get comfortable and the leg room was almost non-existent.
on October 15,2013 | 05:29PM
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