New seats put the squeeze on fly­ers

Seat man­u­fac­tur­ers skim and trim from just about ev­ery di­men­sion.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - BUSINESS SUNDAY - Martha C. White

Spirit Air­lines, at least, is hon­est about the tight quar­ters on its planes. “We’re a cozy air­line,” it says on its web­site. “We add ex­tra seats to our planes so we can fly with more peo­ple. This low­ers ticket prices for ev­ery­one, just like a car pool.”

It’s not news that air­lines have been squeez­ing more — and smaller — seats into the backs of their planes. The ques­tion is how far they can push their quest for higher profits be­fore run­ning into a back­lash from their cus­tomers.

“The com­mer­cial side — pri­mar­ily the peo­ple who run air­line rev­enue de­part­ments — want more seats on planes,” said Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of At­mos­phere Re­search Group, an air­line and travel in­dus­try an­a­lyst. They’re up against “the peo­ple in the air­lines’ mar­ket­ing de­part­ments, who are try­ing to act as their pas­sen­gers’ ad­vo­cates and

push back on some of these ini­tia­tives.”

To ac­com­mo­date the air­lines, seat man­u­fac­tur­ers have been skim­ming and trim­ming from just about ev­ery di­men­sion, re­lo­cat­ing the seat back pocket, re­plac­ing pad­ding with elas­tic mesh and whit­tling down the arm­rests.

“There are two goals with seats: To squeeze in more peo­ple and to make the plane lighter,” said Richard Aboulafia, avi­a­tion an­a­lyst with the Teal Group.

While low-cost air­lines like Spirit have nar­rowed the dis­tance be­tween rows of seats to as lit­tle as 28 inches, most of the big Amer­i­can air­lines have kept the dis­tance — what’s known in the busi­ness as seat pitch — at 30 inches. Any­thing less, the ma­jor air­lines have found, pushes be­lea­guered trav­el­ers to their lim­its.

This year, the news leaked that Amer­i­can Air­lines was con­sid­er­ing a cabin re­design that would leave a few rows in its new Boe­ing 737 Max fleet with just 29 inches of pitch, plans the car­rier quickly dropped af­ter a rash of com­plaints.

“We got a lot of push­back from our cus­tomers, and most no­tably, from our team mem­bers,” the air­line’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Doug Parker, told in­vestors in July. “While we could con­vince our­selves that that might be able to pro­duce some­what higher rev­enues on the air­craft, what it was do­ing to our per­cep­tion with our team wasn’t worth it.”

The push to shrink the space be­tween rows of seats comes as ma­jor car­ri­ers are squeez­ing 10 abreast in more long-haul jets, so the mid­dle sec­tion has four seats — and, by def­i­ni­tion, two mid­dle seats — rather than three.

But cus­tomers will be spared this ex­pe­ri­ence on most flights within the United States, Aboulafia said, be­cause there just isn’t enough space. “The good news is that pretty much ev­ery do­mes­tic flight you’re go­ing to take is go­ing to be in a 737 or A320 — no way can you do four-three,” he said.

Tra­di­tional air­line seats were fash­ioned out of rigid alu­minum frames, then wrapped in thick foam pad­ding. But that ap­proach, said Alex Pozzi, vice pres­i­dent of re­search and devel­op­ment in in­te­rior sys­tems for Rock­well Collins, a man­u­fac­turer of air­craft seats, is no longer used, with the avail­abil­ity of more so­phis­ti­cated, high­tech ma­te­ri­als.

“We’ve been us­ing a lot of ad­vanced ma­te­ri­als, a lot of com­pos­ite ma­te­ri­als, to al­low the ac­tual phys­i­cal struc­ture to get smaller,” he said. “We’ve also re­moved a lot of the hard points in the seat and gone to fab­ric sus­pen­sion sys­tems,” lead­ing, he said, to seats more akin to er­gonomic desk chairs.

“The less size that the seat struc­ture it­self takes up, the more space that’s left over for the pas­sen­ger,” Pozzi said.

Or, as the case may be, for more pas­sen­gers. “Over the last five years, as slim­line seats be­come more com­mon and were adopted by more air­lines, air­lines took the op­por­tu­nity to ba­si­cally take the space they were sav­ing and, de­pend­ing on the air­line, most of the air­lines took that space and added in an ex­tra row or two,” said Jami Counter, vice pres­i­dent of TripAd­vi­sor Flights, which owns the site “The ac­tual pitch would shrink, but the­o­ret­i­cally, your leg room wouldn’t.”

“Now,” he added, “you’re cram­ming an­other per­son in there so you still have more peo­ple in that ex­act same space. It be­comes a much more un­pleas­ant fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

On Amer­i­can Air­lines’ new 737s, which will be put into ser­vice be­gin­ning soon, seats have a min­i­mum 30-inch pitch, although Amer­i­can says most seats have 31 inches. Seat back TV screens were elim­i­nated and re­placed with brack­ets that pas­sen­gers can use to mount their own de­vices to watch video, and power sources to keep those de­vices run­ning. The mag­a­zine holder is now closer the top of the seat back to free up more knee room.

“Those seats are de­signed to make the best pos­si­ble use of the space,” an Amer­i­can spokesman, Josh Freed, said.

Air­lines con­tend that im­proved er­gonomics and, in some cases, slightly wider seats make up for a tighter pitch. A spokesman for Spirit Air­lines, Paul Berry, said the em­pha­sis on pitch was an in­ac­cu­rate way to as­sess to­day’s newer seat de­signs.

“If you just go by inches, it’s kind of an old mea­sure. We’re kind of bas­ing it on com­fort level and the way we’ve en­gi­neered our seats,” he said. “While it’s only 28 inches in pitch, it ac­tu­ally feels like it’s about 30 inches,” he said.

But some con­sumer ad­vo­cates say the is­sue goes be­yond com­fort. One group, Fly­ers Rights, is pe­ti­tion­ing the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion to set min­i­mum di­men­sions for air­line seat width and pitch. The group won a round in its court bat­tle with the FAA in July, when a U.S. District Court told the agency to ad­dress what it re­ferred to as “the in­cred­i­ble shrink­ing air­line seat.”

Paul Hud­son, pres­i­dent of Fly­ers Rights, said the need for seat reg­u­la­tion is driven by safety con­cerns. Pas­sen­gers have been get­ting taller and wider, even as air­lines push for slim­mer seats, but reg­u­la­tions still stip­u­late that planes have to be able to be evac­u­ated in just a minute and a half.

“Ob­vi­ously, if you’re squeezed into a very con­fined space, it’s go­ing to be harder to get up and get out in an emer­gency,” Hud­son said.

“The seats were orig­i­nally de­signed for peo­ple, for men who av­er­aged about 5 foot 10 inches and 170 pounds,” he said. “Right now, the av­er­age man is just un­der 200 pounds.”

The air­line in­dus­try con­tends that fur­ther reg­u­la­tion is un­nec­es­sary. Car­ri­ers re­ferred ques­tions to the trade group Air­lines for Amer­ica, which re­sponded with an emailed state­ment that read, in part, “All U.S. car­ri­ers meet or ex­ceed fed­eral safety stan­dards and we con­tinue to be­lieve that there is no need for gov­ern­ment to in­ter­fere.”

But some air travel pro­fes­sion­als con­tend that ad­vo­cates like Fly­ers Rights might have a point in ar­gu­ing that tightly packed seats can be an im­ped­i­ment to evac­u­a­tions.

“It won’t be nec­es­sar­ily a pas­sen­ger com­fort reg­u­la­tion,” Counter said, “but more around safety.”


Air­lines grap­ple with how far they can push their quest for profits be­fore cus­tomers re­volt.


Rock­well Collins’ Merid­ian econ­omy seats for pas­sen­ger air­planes uti­lize high-tech ma­te­ri­als and mod­ern de­sign tricks to cre­ate smaller seats that ac­tu­ally give pas­sen­gers more room, the com­pany says.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.