American Airlines, United and Other Carriers Are Wedging an Extra Seat Into Each Coach Row
Airlines' push to lure high-paying fliers with flatbed business seats and premium economy loungers is leaving economy-class passengers with less space.
No, you're not going crazy: airline seats really are getting smaller. For airlines, the reason is simple: the lighter and smaller models cut costs and widen profits.
A push over the past decade by carriers to expand higher-fare sections has shrunk the area devoted to coach on many big jetliners. But airlines don't want to drop passengers. So first airlines slimmed seats to add more rows.
Now, big carriers including AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, Air Canada, Air France-KLMSA and Dubai's Emirates Airline are cutting shoulder space by wedging an extra seat into each coach row. That shift is bringing the short-haul standard to long-haul flying.
For almost 20 years, the standard setup in the back of a Boeing 777 was nine seats per row. But last year, nearly 70% of its biggest version of the plane were delivered with 10-abreast seating, up from just 15% in 2010.
777 Economy 10-abreast seating BOEING
The new trend in economy seating reverses a half century of seat growth in economy class. Early jet planes like Boeing's 707 had 17-inch seats, a dimension based on the width of a U.S. Air Force pilot's hips, saysAirbusmarketing chief Chris Emerson.Of the airlines that have bought Boeing Co.'s new 787 Dreamliner—a model touted as improving passenger comfort—90% have selected nine-abreast seating in coach over roomy eight-abreast. And 10 airlines around the world now fly narrower AirbusA330 jetliners with nine 16.7-inch seats in each row—among the tightest flying—rather than the eight it was designed for, according to the unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co.
That standard for long-haul flying increased to 18-inches in the 1970s and 1980s with the 747 jumbo and the first Airbus jets. It widened to 18.5 inches with the Boeing 777 in the 1990s and A380 superjumbo in the 2000s. Now, cost-conscious airlines are moving to lighter 17-inch-wide seats on their Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliners and 18-inch seats for A350s.
This doesn't sit well with many travelers, particularly those who are large or overweight. Arm rests and aisles are also getting slimmed to wedge in the extra seat, meaning more elbows get bumped. And while seats are now being designed more ergonomically, with better cushions and head rests, the improvements don't stop people from rubbing shoulders.
"I felt that I was kind of stuck in the seat" of an Emirates 777, said Ben Goodwin, a marketing manager at Birmingham University in England, who recently flew to China through Dubai. On his connecting flight, an Emirates Airbus A380, the seats were one inch wider. "I felt like I'd been upgraded, even though I was still in economy," he said.
The squeeze can help cash-squeezed airlines. Air France recently expanded the premium sections on its 777s while cutting the floor space in economy class. Yet the carrier kept the number of economy seats constant by switching from nine- to 10-abreast in the back, a spokesman said.
"On a 777, ten-abreast is the way to go," said Emirates President Tim Clark. "You'd be nuts to do it any other way."
Pressure in economy cabins also lets airlines upsell coach passengers. Air New Zealand Ltd. flies 10-abreast 777s on which fliers can book three economy seats that convert into a couch by raising the arm and leg rests.
Passengers aren't happy facing decreased shoulder room, more frequent bumps from service carts in narrower aisles and less overall comfort, said Andrew Wong, regional director of travel website TripAdvisor LLC in Singapore. Based on feedback to the company's SeatGuru website, he said, fliers "are becoming aware of increased seating abreast—particularly for the 777."
Plane makers deflect criticism, noting that seat width is up to airlines. Boeing designs its jets for airlines to do "whatever they want to do inside the cabin," said Mike Bair, Boeing senior vice president of marketing. Boeing designers focus on "creature comfort that can't be violated by the airlines," like bigger windows, larger overhead bins and mood lighting on every jet, he said.
"We are mindful that we serve a wide range of customer types and our aircraft need to be configured accordingly," said senior vice president of marketing and loyalty for United-Continental Holdings Inc., Tom O'Toole, who says the airline brings in real people of all shapes and sizes to help test and select its seats.Airlines and airplane makers are aware that passenger hips and waist lines aren't shrinking along with the seats dimensions.
But United says seat width isn't the sole focus of passenger comfort. The airline's nine-abreast Dreamliner cabin has received higher marks for passenger satisfaction—49% higher than the average rating of its other long-haul jets, owing to the higher overall marks for the 787's new cabin features, he said.
Airbus is publicly siding with coach fliers by running ads touting the width of its traditional economy-class seats. The tagline: "Personal space isn't any less personal on a 12-hour long-haul flight."
But the European plane maker, like Boeing, is also helping airlines cram more seats in the back of its planes.
When Airbus introduced its two-deck A380 superjumbo a decade ago, it boasted that the lower deck was 12 inches wider than a Boeing 747 jumbo jet but would offer the same 10-abreast seating, giving each passenger up to 19 inches of hip space. Now Emirates and some other A380 operators aim to put 11 seats across, at about 17.2 inches each, the same standard used for smaller jets like Boeing's 737.
"We've tried it," said Mr. Clark. "It works."
Airbus officials say they don't promote the configuration for intercontinental flights. "On long haul, we believe it needs to be a minimum of 18 inches," said Airbus's Mr. Emerson. "If it's a regional flight, we can accommodate one more seat abreast."
Mr. Emerson said seats on an Airbus superjumbo at 11 abreast are about the same width as a Boeing 777 at 10 abreast.
But the packed A380 would have an extra drawback because the center bank of seats, between the two aisles, would be five abreast: In every row, both of the window seats and the center seat would be two seats from the aisle, an arrangement known to frequent fliers as the 'double excuse-me.' That means three passengers in each row could face "this horrendous position of having to cross two people to reach the aisle," said Mr. Wong at Trip Advisor.
Airbus, like Boeing, is making high-density seating easier. On the new Airbus A350 model, now in development, the company is proposing either nine-abreast seating or 10-abreast.
Airbus dubbed the model "XWB" for extra-wide body, because the A350 is wider than its A330 and Boeing's Dreamliner. But Boeing officials note that Airbus is proposing to put the same number of passengers in each row of an A350 as Boeing traditionally put in rows of a 747 jumbo jet—inside a cabin roughly 21 inches narrower.
Boeing's future 777 promises some relief. The proposed 777X's cabin will be 4 inches wider than current versions, giving almost half an inch more per seat at 10 across. But that space won't arrive until about 2020.
The solution, said Mr. Clark at Emirates, is to offer distractions like big meals, frequent snacks and lots of electronic entertainment. Mr. Goodwin, the Emirates passenger from Birmingham, said attentive service did distract him from the seating.
"With food and TV," said Mr. Clark at Emirates, "people are mesmerized."