Shrinking Economy Class Seats

At great column by Harold Meyerson, Washington Post, that has an interesting perspective on why economy class seats are shrinking. In May I swore that the seat space (front to back) on Alitalia was even less than any flight before. You could not lower the tray if the seat in front was reclined. And the seat reclined only a couple of inches. It was tight. I don't how an overweight person could have tolerated that. One point Meyerson may have missed is the rise of the Economy Plus, Economy Comfort, etc. seats that is essentially creating a fourth class of seating - First, Business, Economy Plus, Economy. The more miserable you can make economy the more willing some people will be to pay for Economy Plus which gets you back to about what economy was ten, fifteen years ago. After that flight we made the decision that if we cannot get into business class via ff points, then we will pay the difference for economy plus. We are into Amsterdam and home from Rome in October. The economy plus on United was extra $800. We are losing the battle for seat comfort but don't know how to fight it.

Posted by Larry
Elk Grove, CA, USA
6692 posts

I agree with Frank. We've purchased economy plus seats on United for wife and daughter for the longer legs of their upcoming trip to Italy.

Posted by Swan
Napa, CA
2855 posts

If ordering economy plus at time of booking, on United it is usually $95 each way. Sometimes the same thing is offered for $59 when printing a boarding pass. It's not terribly important to me since my legs fit the economy space ok, but for $59 on a long flight, I will usually pay the economy plus charge.

Posted by Frank
Tresana, Highlands Ranch, CO, USA
10844 posts

Then you have short legs. At 6-2 it is more of a problem. But space between seats is shrinking. I can remember a time when you could actually get out of an inside seat by crawling over your seat mates a bit but now you have to completely get of the seat to let someone escape from the middle.

Posted by Richard
Los Angeles
631 posts

Remember when flying used to be glamorous? Now it is a series of humiliations and discomfort. My wife won't take our next European trip until we have the 200,000 miles to go business class for the 12 hour flight. At least then it is something to look forward to and not dread. We are a little over 3/4 of the way there!

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17716 posts

Frank, That was in interesting article, and it raised some good points with the comparison between airline seating and the shrinking middle class. I'll have to ponder that for awhile. I've been paying for Economy Plus/Comfort whenever it's available, although it's not always cheap. As I recall, last time I travelled with KLM, they wanted about $200 each way for the "improved" seating. I was talking to some other travellers and they had paid less than that. For some reason, Canadians seem to pay more for Economy Plus than others, at least with KLM. When I saw the cramped seating in Coach, I was glad I had paid for better seating. I was offered an upgrade to business class on my flight home from Paris with Air Canada in July, but at €1000 there was no way I could afford it. I suspect at some point, the airlines will have to reach a "balance", as packing the masses into "sardine class" is a greater portion of their income than the few seats in business class. If the masses stop flying, that will hurt their bottom line. Cheers!

Posted by Bev
Decorah, Iowa, USA
250 posts

Three years ago, we had frequent flyer tickets from Atlanta to Paris. We were on an Air France flight. I had tried to get economy comfort seats but received only a run-around while trying to deal with Delta and Air France. Both airlines kept telling me that the seating was handled by the other airline. Of course, we were in coach seating on the flight to Paris. As soon as the meal had been served, the person in front of me slammed his seat back into my space. I still had my meal on the tray in front of me. The seating was that tight for the rest of the flight. My husband could barely get out of his seat to get to the aisle. Plus, the seats themselves were terribly uncomfortable. I was a "free" flight so what did I expect. While planning our trip to France last April, I purposely booked a flight from Minneapolis with a stop in New York before going on to Nice. I also reserved the economy comfort seats from New York to Nice and for our return trip from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. I was not happy about paying for the economy comfort seats but since I am old and a little bit rotund, I wasn't going to sit in regular coach on a long flight again. Yes, we used to enjoy flying but that has long since ended. Baggage fees, seats, meals, is all about the money and it won't get any better as the airlines keep consolidating and there are fewer and fewer flights from which to choose!

Posted by Charlie
Honolulu/Seattle, HI/WA, USA
1833 posts

Make sure to buy your Lottery tickets and yes the odds are long but the last 3 winners all bought tickets!

Posted by Swan
Napa, CA
2855 posts

Frequent Flyer seats aren't really free. And the airlines sometimes treat FF flyers as valued customers. After all, FF programs are based on loyalty to an airline.

Posted by Rebecca
Nashville, TN, USA
644 posts

Interesting article, Frank. Thanks for posting it. As a tall, thin person, I have noticed that the space between seats is shrinking, and on recent flights (Delta) my knees dig into the seat back in front of me. This situation becomes claustrophobic when the person in front of me puts their seat into a reclining position. George from Canada made a very good point; that many travelers slam their seat back into full reclining position without regard to the comfort of others. My suggestion to the airlines would be that if they are going to insist on shrinking the space between rows of seats, they should, from a design standpoint, make the seats in Economy class non-reclining. Radical, I know, but at least it would make it more bearable not to have the person in front of you lying on top of you. From the article, "The new business-class seats that Lufthansa is installing convert to quasi-beds that are 6 feet 6 inches long and two feet wide, the New York Times' Jad Mouawad reports. The price for working, eating, drinking and sleeping on this commodious couch, round-trip from Kennedy airport to Frankfurt and back, is a cool $5,000." Makes a round trip crossing on the QM2 look more reasonable all the time! Okay, I know most people do not have the time it takes for a transatlantic crossing; flights are quicker. But for those who are retired, or off work for a couple of months each year (teachers) it could make sense. Especially if you catch one of their sale promotions.

Posted by Zoe
Toledo, Ohio, US
2432 posts

I started flying comfort class last year, it was $80 each way on Delta. It made a big difference. The previous two trips were so uncomfortable that I still remember them like a recurring nightmare. I will never fly discomfort class again.

Posted by Swan
Napa, CA
2855 posts

When purchasing flights, it may be important to consider the added cost of the "comfort" seats. This charge appears to vary with the flight and airline. There may be some airlines that (still) have reasonably comfortable economy seats. For shorter flights the economy seats may be comfortable enough for a couple of hours or so. My knees usually don't start aching for a couple of hours. An aisle seat is more comfortable for me, since that seat allows me to stretch out one leg. Sometimes the bulkhead seats are a good leg-room alternative. They have some drawbacks, but do allow pax to stretch out some. These work better if overhead storage isn't important.

Posted by Marco
Oxford, United Kingdom
768 posts

Back in the 60s there was a class of travel below Economy, usually called Thrift or something along those lines. Economy has basically retreated to that level. 33-34" used to be a common economy seat pitch across the Atlantic, but it has been progressively shaved down to 31". The seats themselves are a bit thinner too. US carriers have been late to the premium economy game and even now they don't offer much more in general than extra legroom. Others give various priority benefits, or business class meals - which is why they cost more.

Posted by Agnes
Alexandria, VA, USA
616 posts

We are losing the battle for seat comfort but don't know how to fight it. Leaving aside height/long legs issues for some passengers, what about the growing obesity statistics across the board? There's a losing fight. Airline seats are not made for overweight people who are bound to be uncomfortable, whether it's in a small car or a regular airplane seat. If you go back a few decades, people were relatively slim overall compared with now. If nothing else, keeping yourself fit, trim, and healthy will make you more comfortable in the face of shrinking seats as opposed to other options. Airlines are going to continue to cater to their most profitable customers, those who fly a lot in business class and pay high fares. They've gotten burned with small profit margins (and bankruptcy) in the past, so they learned to segment their audience better and price accordingly. As far as comfort goes, additional increments to the baseline are always for sale. As much as everyone blames everything on the airlines, isn't it a question of regulation? I mean, if the DOT decided that those gestational crates (known as seats) and walkways had to comprise some minimum dimensions, then they would mandate all airlines to meet a basic standard. But of course, corporations are people my friend and the airlines are as deregulated as you can get...there you have it. At the same time, it's illogical for people to continually supersize and expect to be comfortable; the forces are going the opposite way.

Posted by Roy
Auburn, AL
799 posts

The airlines are conducting their own campaign to help us fit in the smaller seats. They call it "in-flight meals." Inedible, but fly often enough and you will lose the weight.

Posted by Thomas
Vienna, Austria
502 posts

Good article. Thank you for sharing it. I've just returned home after spending a month in the States. We also coughed up the extra dough for economy-plus. It was worth it, but I have to admit that I no longer look forward to flying. It's more of an unfortunate, de-humanizing necessity these days. And, yes, I really did notice that the percentage of the plane devoted to first and business class is growing. In Europe, I still jump at the opportunity to take the train if time allows ...but of course having the time is the ultimate luxury.

Posted by Ed
7949 posts

Perhaps a contributing factor of airfare increases is the extra fuel required to haul the increased human tonnage.

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
7181 posts

I think a lot depends on the plane you fly. We flew a couple years ago on an SAS (Airbus) to Copenhagen and the seat pitch (the distance between your seat and the seat in front of you) was noticeably smaller. I saw Lufthansa was looking at a new, thinner, seat that would allow more seats/people on the plane without noticeably reducing seat pitch. Anyone know of a sight that compares seat pitch by aircraft and carrier? If so, the way to fight back is for smart shoppers to let those planes go empty - or knowingly take a small pitch in exchange for a steeply discounted rate.

Posted by George
814 posts

Today's seat pitch in economy is nasty, to be sure. Even more appalling to me, are the galoots who fire back their seat backs from the moment the sign goes off until landing - even when asked to raise them, during meal times, they become indignant - thanks buddy!

Posted by Denny
Columbus, OH, USA
733 posts

In our Columbus, Ohio paper, Joe Nocera of the New York Times writes today about deregulation, consolidation, and its impacts. He doesn't address seat size but rather seat supply. We are normal height and normal weight...people tell us we are skinny...but have purchased comfort plus for another $100 per head (or tush?) each way since we first tried it a couple of years ago. We now just budget that into the cost of the tickets.

Posted by Michael
Des Moines, IA
2155 posts

It's interesting, too, that there are significant differences in economy even among the various equipment types a single airline flies. United's 747 seats, for example, are more cramped than their 777 seats. Swiss' A330 has more room than their A340. I haven't studied their official dimensions online, but the differences are such that you'll notice for sure. Just a couple of examples. Your best bet may be to hope for a delay in your itinerary that requires rebooking on another flight. Due to a United-caused delay In June, we were rebooked from United to one of their Star Alliance partners (a Skytrax 5 star airline, which was awesome) and had at least as much room (maybe more) as United's Economy Plus. Same kind of delay on the way home, and we were rebooked on another United flight but in Economy Plus. I'm too frugal to pay for it, but I'll gladly accept it for no charge. And, yes, there is a huge difference in comfort. Airlines have become so good at growing their margins that the entire Economy class could be empty, and they would still make money on a flight if their first and business classes are full. They don't make money on Economy, but they'll happily squeeze in as many people as humanly possible, because all of that is gravy when first and business are full. As for decent fares, they're gone for good. I just read an article suggesting the "Southwest Effect" no longer applies. I know it's true for DSM. Southwest started flying here last year...their fares are much higher than what I am accustomed to with Southwest, and competitor fares to/from DSM are unchanged. Brad: I'm pretty sure seatguru has seat dimension info, but I don't know if there is comparison info...I use it mostly to avoid bad seats.

Posted by David
Seattle, WA, USA
1414 posts

The problem is us. Well, not me. I'm not sure about you. But those other guys, yeah, they're the cause of all this suffering. People demand the absolute lowest price ticket. The airlines have figured this out. So they cut every possible cost, and squeeze in more and more seats. No seat is ever left empty. The Big Squeeze is on, and will continue. Enjoy your cheap flight to Europe. It's what you asked for. (Me, I now have a policy: if I'm crossing the Atlantic or Pacific, I'll only do it in business class.)

Posted by Michael
Des Moines, IA
2155 posts

Well, the airlines have consolidated, cut routes, cut aircraft, cut schedules, reconfigured economy cabins with more seats, and shifted business to their regional partners such that regional now accounts for 50% of domestic flying when it was something like 15% in the 90s. All of this has contributed to high fares and a bad flying experience in economy. If you're in business or first, you're golden. You'll pay for it, but you will certainly have a good experience. The airlines focus on you, because that's where they are making their money. They need to be competitive with those customers, not with economy customers.

Posted by Agnes
Alexandria, VA, USA
616 posts

@Michael - thanks, that video was hillarious. Aren't first world problems a you-know-what? I wish the seats were better in cheapo class but I'm not willing to pay more - so I'll take what I can get. My only comment on the article is that it's not up to corporations to enforce equity (all they care about is maximizing profit) - that's the government's job if they actually can get anything at all done (note that American airlines have no passenger bill of rights while European ones have better passenger protections - their service and food are much better as well)

Posted by Charlie
Honolulu/Seattle, HI/WA, USA
1833 posts

I remember taking the train between Seattle and Portland, OR, and the seat bottoms slid forward with the backs hardly reclining at all. I always thought that I should send a suggestion to the airlines about them using those kind of seats. But, the next time I took that same train ride, those nice seats were gone - an "upgrade"!

Posted by lisa
akron, ohio
98 posts

Oh Rebeccah I am with you on this one. For several years now, ever since the space between sits has gotten smaller, I have often wished that they made all seats non-reclinable. It just makes sense when everyone is uncomfortable to begin with, why add insult to injury by allowing even more discomfort with the seat backs that come slamming into your knees. It is truly ridiculous to continue to allow this practice given the inches they have taken away. It won't kill anyone to sit up straight for several hours. It doesn't kill me and I do it voluntarily because I know how much I hate it when the person in front of me reclines his seat. so I don't recline mine.

Posted by Sharon
Santa Rosa, CA, USA
889 posts

Several years ago we were flying United Economy back from Heathrow. Just after take off the man in front of me reclined his seat and he came virtually into my lap. He took no notice of this at all. We called the flight attendant - she looked at his seat and said it was broken but there was nothing they could do about it since we had already taken off. I was at the window seat and felt total claustrophobia! We called another flight attendant who looked at it and told the gentleman he would not be able to recline on the trip. Thank goodness! We too always fly Economy Plus now - helps some, but still not great.

Posted by Rebecca
Nashville, TN, USA
644 posts

"The more miserable you can make economy the more willing some people will be to pay for Economy Plus." Frank, you are absolutely right. This could have been solved by slowly increasing all ticket prices, without squeezing people like sardines. It would have been a better solution. An Economy Plus on United for an extra $800 is worth it. I will fly Economy Plus next time. I guess they've got us right where they want us, and there's nothing we can do about it.

Posted by Kristen
263 posts

I agree with David. If you are willing to be flexible with your flight times and book in advance, you can get some (relatively) reasonable business class seats. I know not everyone will agree but in my opinion, the extra money is totally worth 1)not dreading the flight 2)feeling more well rested upon arrival 3)being able to go through the priority lines at the airport 4)no fees for checked bags

Posted by Barry
Kansas City, KS, USA
8 posts

I'm 6 ft 9 in. Used to play basketball in school. The rest of you have NOTHING to complain about!

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Once I saw the topic I was wondering "How long until someone mentions fat people as the source of all our woes?" Didn't take too long. Fat people, ruining everything! I also don't get David's point about "enjoy your cheap trip to Europe!" Ticket prices to Europe are at an all time high the last couple of years, and it's not just inflation and fuel costs. The airlines are charging more, while packing more people in. It's not just fatties like me who feel the squeeze - yeah, I'm plump, but not morbidly obese, and I've actually got it better than my skinny husband, because at least I've got short legs. He's only 5'11 and maybe 140 dripping wet but he barely fits in economy seats. My mom is 6', my brother 6'3, my uncle 6'7. I'm never happier to be short than when flying. The latter literally has to fly economy plus, he simply doesn't fit in economy seating. Forget a "fat tax", should there be a "tall tax"? It's ludicrous. For those with miles and money (because let's face it, the two go together), it's great to throw money at the issue and upgrade, but what about those of us who can't afford it? Is a European vacation only now available for the upper middle class OR the short and skinny? I mean, I'm not surprised on this forum, given how popular Ed's "throw money at the problem" advice is (hey, what happens when you have no money to throw?) It's like it's inconceivable to many on this forum that coach seats, no fancy upgrades available, no extra slush fund or daddy's money to throw at a travel problem, is how most middle class people travel. "But people fly Spirit Airlines because the fares are what they can afford." No shit. Wish that issue was more recognized here.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

BTW, the bitter tone of my reply is not directed at Frank, I appreciate you sharing this excellent article. I'm just bitter at the tone here - "Spending $800 per flight is SO worth it!" For many people and families, that extra $800 per person prices them out of traveling, period. That's a week of decent accommodations in Europe!

Posted by Iain
Edmonton, AB, Canada
668 posts

Didn't read the column, but can identify. In April we flew KLM from Calgary to Amsterdam - don't tell me 9.5 hrs sitting upright is tolerable! Thye gentleman behind me was quite rotund and tall - large all round. He, rightly, protested (actually it was his wife) when I tried to recline my seat. When my seat was upright and the one in front of me reclined, there was not even enough room to read a magazine, never mind a newspaper. The fellow behind asked if he could be relocated, but there was not a free seat. WHen we got to Amsterdam I tried to get our seats changed for teh return, but there was only business class and they wanted $4000 (might actually have been Euros) to change - I could have bought the Business class originally for less. There were no enhanced economy seats left. We flew Lufthansa a couple of years ago from Edinburgh to Frankfurt on what appeared to be a new plane with the thinner seats and I was surprised how roomy and comfortable they were, but perhaps a longer flight would not have been so pleasant, not sure, but would not mind trying after the KLM experience. We normally fly Air Transat Club class which comes out about the same as Air Canada economy, but much better service and room, but they do not fly to Europe in April - at least not from Calgary or Edmonton.