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It’s not your imagination, airlines really are shrinking the size of seats

Cramming more people onto planes boosts profits


 

Jason Hetherington/Getty Images

Air Canada’s third “high-density” Boeing 777 airplane will take to the skies in mid-December. The new plane will feature three cabins—business, economy and premium economy—and will pack in 109 more paying customers than existing 777s, boosting the total number of passengers per plane to 458 from 349. As if it needed saying, most of the extra bodies will be squeezed into the economy-class cabin. Each seat is about 43 cm across instead of the usual 46 cm, allowing them to be laid out in rows that are 10 across instead of the standard nine. “I’m not sure customers really notice the inch that much,” says airline spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick, who adds that many of the narrower seats are more ergonomically designed. “Sometimes they don’t notice until they’re told.”

It’s not only elbow room passengers are losing, though. Several carriers, including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines, to name a few, have adopted new “slimline” seats with thinner cushions and headrests. They can be placed closer together, front to back, freeing up space for additional rows. WestJet, meantime, has scrunched some of its existing 43-cm-wide seats together to make room for a “premium economy” section, while Bombardier recently introduced a high-density version of its Q-400 turboprop that will seat 86 passengers. (The Q-400s operated by Toronto’s Porter Airlines are equipped with just 70 seats.)

The reason for the assault on passengers’ personal space is simple economics. Fitzpatrick said the extra seats translate into a 20 per cent reduction in the cost for Air Canada to fly each passenger on the 777—money that can either be used to offer more attractive fares or pad the bottom line. It’s an appealing option in an industry that lost some $60 billion in the U.S. between 1978 and 2009, and endured more than 150 bankruptcies.

But while the new approach seems to be working—Air Canada recently posted record third-quarter earnings of $365 million—the risk of a backlash is ever-present. Faced with soaring fuel prices and economic instability, airlines have spent the past decade ditching all the perks previously associated with flying—everything from pillows to hot meals. Now, with seats shrinking, never has the industry’s efforts to balance profitability with the potential for peeved passengers seemed more precarious.

So far, Air Canada is using its high-density 777s mainly on long-haul routes, including Montreal to Paris and Vancouver to Hong Kong, where rivals fly the same planes with more than 400 seats. Air France, for example, has one of its 777s configured to handle 468 passengers. “Our regular triple sevens only have 349 seats so that puts us at a disadvantage,” Fitzpatrick says, adding that, “we’re not looking at doing this fleet-wide.” One reason Air Canada passengers may be oblivious to their squishier surroundings is because the 777s come with a newer in-flight entertainment system. “It’s quite a step up,” Fitzpatrick says. “So people tend to focus on that.”

Lufthansa was the first big carrier to sneak more passengers onto its aircraft by investing in slimmer, lighter seats, in 2010. Made by Germany’s Recaro, they reduce the seat pitch (the space between a seat and the one in front of it) to 76 cm from 81 cm. Critically, the new designs were able to preserve knee room, thanks to thinner cushions and a relocated seat pocket, which is now above the tray table. The seats have become standard on about 200 of Lufthansa’s short- and medium-haul aircraft, making it possible to carry about 2,000 more passengers across the fleet—the equivalent of about 12 extra airplanes.

Nils Haupt, a Lufthansa spokesperson, says the move reflects the reality of today’s commercial aviation market. “In the last 15 years, average air fares increased by about 10 per cent, but at the same time fuel prices have increased by 177 per cent.” Airlines had to get creative to stay profitable, he says.

More favourable economics aside, it would seem that airlines are flying against the jet stream. North Americans are getting bigger, not smaller. The average weight of an American male between the age of 20 and 74 grew from 166 lb. in 1960 to 191 lb. in 2002, according to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women went from an average of 140 lb. to 164 lb. As a result, movie theatres and sports stadiums have increased the widths of their seats in recent decades. Airlines, on the other hand, are moving in the other direction, much to the chagrin of groups like the U.S. Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, which argues that airline seats are “far too narrow for most of the population.”

Passengers who feel overly squished have found an unlikely ally in Airbus. Ahead of this month’s air show in Dubai, the European plane-maker launched a campaign proposing an “industry-standard” 46-cm seat on long-haul flights. It argues that anything less dooms passengers to a miserable experience and will give the entire industry a bad name. “We risk jeopardizing passenger comfort into 2014 and beyond,” Kevin Keniston, Airbus’s head of passenger comfort, says in a video on its website. Airbus even commissioned a study by the London Sleep Centre that found adults sleep up to 53 per cent better in a 46-cm seat than they do in a 43-cm one. Boeing, on the other hand, says it should be up to airlines to decide which configuration works best.

Analysts say the dispute is mostly marketing. Robert Kokonis, the president of Toronto airline consulting firm AirTrav, notes Boeing’s popular 777 has a slightly wider interior than Airbus’s competing A350. “Boeing can accommodate 10 across in their cabin and Airbus can’t,” Kokonis says. Airbus, in other words, is concerned about losing sales since as many as 70 per cent of the larger version of the 777 were ordered with 10 abreast seating last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. That’s up from just 15 per cent three years ago. Richard Aboulafia, the vice-president of analysis of Virginia-based airline consulting firm Teal Group, called Airbus’s campaign “purely self-serving stuff.”

If there’s a bright spot in any of this for the flying public, it’s that airlines armed with increasingly cramped—and profitable—seating configurations no longer seem quite as militant about nickel-and-diming everything else. Even European discounter Ryanair, which has some of the slimmest seats in the industry at just 40 cm (and whose CEO, Michael O’Leary, has mused about flying people standing up), recently backed off on some of its more hated policies—it now permits passengers to pay for assigned seats and slashed the price to check luggage at the airport from $100 to $50. You can have the lowest costs in the industry, but it doesn’t do much good if passengers stop booking, Kokonis says. “If the customer-service pendulum swings too far one way, it inevitably starts to come back.”


 

It’s not your imagination, airlines really are shrinking the size of seats

  1. There’s a silver lining in all of this. The airlines (and governments with their security check-ins) are secretly trying to encourage the plebes to reduce their carbon footprints by convincing them/us that flying is just way too much of a hassle anymore…

    • They’ve already convinced me.

      (Five-way video meetings = up to four much happier people who didn’t fly.)

  2. I just flew with Lufthansa in economy from Vancouver to Munich and it was really awful, you have to expect the person in front to fully recline their seat for the whole flight so its practically in your face. If the person next to you is over 200lbs good luck. The seat cushions are so thin I actually think it makes sense to take your own cushion. Maybe its time to bite the bullet and go for premium economy whatever that is.

    • “The seat cushions are so thin I actually think it makes sense to take your own cushion.”

      That’s EXACTLY what I am doing. I bought a gel cushion at Canadian Tire on sale. I’m thinking of buying extra and going up and down the aisle selling them. Premium economy is the old economy, buy with lousier seats.

  3. This might be a false economy and also very dangerous. Deep Vein Thrombosis is already a concern on long haul flights and any attempts to restrict seat size combined with a policy of restricting in cabin movement will only make it worse.

    If there is a corresponding increase in incidents especially among seniors this could result in a class action lawsuit. These restrictive measures are being taken in the face of existing medical evidence and in the full knowledge that they are dangerous.
    Put the price up to cover the flight and stop messing with peoples health.

  4. So is adding in all the seats and causing extra weight — is that why we can only take one suitcase now? I can handle the smaller seats on the short haul domestic flights (although that hump next to the window means I cannot actually even put my feet straight out in front of me), but I flew from San Fransisco to Sydney, Aus, on United Airlines — that is a 13-hour flight — and they have managed to stick an extra seat in the centre sections, so four in row. The seat-table was broken; the woman next to me was elderly and had just broken her arm, so it was in a soft cast for the long flight — the arm next to me. I was terrified I would hurt her arm; I felt awkward asking her to get up, so tended to get up only when she did. Lord knows if I could afford first class on such long flights, I would — that would be $12,000. And I cannot afford that. Flying home on Air Canada was like being on a premiere airline — extra empty seats between everyone on the flight (I really don’t know if that was intentional or not, but it made for great comfort). My daughter is flying home from Oz on South China airlines — direct to Vancouver — so I hope her experience is good and will perhaps try that next time I fly to visit her.

  5. I’m so glad I don’t have to go on long haul flights for my work anymore.

    • And so are we — horses take up a LOT of space!

  6. So, we already know (like it or not) people are getting bigger, but seats are getting smaller? Sure. Makes perfect sense.
    I’m on the thin side, and have already had enough flights ruined by someone else’s lap encroaching in my space.
    I don’t know how it benefits them, economically, when people like me, who used to be a regular and happy flier, just refuse to put up with it anymore.

    • Their lap? Really??

  7. Flying. It’s become the most demeaning, dis-spiriting, unpleasant way to travel EVER.
    You can keep the glamour of international air travel.

  8. This is one very good reason why I no longer travel by air unless it’s an emergency. Travelling by air today already feels like an emergency.

  9. I am retired and can not afford to travel and fly.
    Glad not to miss this evil treatment of airline costumers

  10. It’s not convenient for me to travel back and forth anymore. Really having trouble having comfort on my flights.

  11. “One reason Air Canada passengers may be oblivious to their squishier surroundings is because the 777s come with a newer in-flight entertainment system. “It’s quite a step up,” Fitzpatrick says. “So people tend to focus on that.”

    Dreaming in technicolor. After an hour in the smaller seats you are sore. After four hours, you hurt. After 10 hours, you are in agony. Throw out the in-flight entertainment system and give us comfortable padded seats with enough space behind the guy in front so that when he tilts back he doesn’t jam his seat into my knees.

  12. I have one word for everybody reading this article. Go out to Canadian Tire and buy one of their gel cushions, preferably when it is on sale. Bring a second one and sell it to the guy next to you.

  13. I had one guy jam his seat into my knees on a KLM flight. He turned around and said, “move your legs so I can put my seat back”. My response: “I cannot make my legs any shorter”.

  14. Yeah and still the ignoramuses in front of you insist on reclining their seat back all the way. If they are going to make the spaces smaller they should fix the seats so they can’t recline. Some people have no consideration for anyone else.

  15. Samoa Air , pay what you weigh .

  16. Adding 90 passengers per plane on the 777 will account for a lot of extra weight plus the weight of additional luggage. Something tells me the ticket price and the good old ‘fuel surcharge’ is going to skyrocket.

  17. I flew on the new 777, from Vancouver to Hong Kong, and I will NEVER fly this plane AGAIN! This 777 setup is so horrible, I cannot even begin to describe. Not only the density is a huge comfort issue for anyone over 5 feet, the lack of lavatories (they cut them to make more seats), the lack of enough room for staff, and how they can serve the passengers (must do it in stages), and the downgrade of exec. class is all problematic.

    The econ seats are so tight, you absolutely cannot move an inch, or even get into the seat altogether. I am 6’1, 200 pounds, and this flight was by far THE WORST flight of my life, and I do 75K miles a year. The Exec seats are not that much better, mind you, they’re setup in a way that if you got a Window seats and your isle passenger is sleep, you have to CLIMB over them to get out, and it basically is just an old Economy Plus seat while charging you business class.

    I really believe it should be ILLEGAL to fit that many seats for such long flights. We are already seeing many with venous thrombosis issues on long flights (quite a few in my company even in their 30s), and this may become a legal issue. I cannot believe they’re going to use this sort of density on such long routes, it should be banned.

    Any frequent flyer who knows a thing or two, will 100% avoid this plane (just look at Flyertalk forums), and probably the poor infrequent flyers who have no clue may get stuck in this plane for 15hrs and generate venous thrombosis on their way home, and in the long run this sort of setup will hopefully fail, WE MUST DEMAND IT, it’s absolutely criminal to fit as many into a plane on such long route.

    I HIGHLY suggest everyone to SKIP this flight. The flight AC 7, or AC 8 from Vancouver to Hong Kong, and the 777-300R. They still run some older versions if you get lucky, they ONLY WAY to tell is if the flight did not offer Economy Plus option, then you got lucky and got the older plane, if it had Econ+, then it’s the new plane and everyone should AVOID it like the plague, and for Asia flights either go with Cathay, Japan Airlines, or many other options available.

  18. I hate all these greedy corporate mofo. They should all be jailed. Today’s CEO’s are like the 16/17th century kings. They control all the wealth and can basically do whatever the f they wants…with no repercussion for their bad and destructive behavior.

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