Airlines continue push for slim seats

Posted: November 8, 2017 at 2:02 a.m.

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."

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."

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, high-tech 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 SeatGuru.com. "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."

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

Business on 11/08/2017