For three long hours last spring, frequent fliers Marie Plette, her husband, Mark, and their infant son were crammed into the packed coach section of a plane that sat on a rainy runway at Chicago’s Midway, waiting for a storm to pass so they could begin the four-hour flight to San Francisco. They arrived in the Bay Area in high dudgeon, declaring the airline’s cramped seating a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Their complaints, added to a crescendo across the country, signal that the flying public’s tolerance for sardine-can seating has finally neared zero, causing a growing number of carriers—American Airlines most notably—to rip out rows of seats so they can trumpet “more space in coach.”
Coach seats on U.S. domestic flights are usually either 17.2 or 18 inches wide; on longer flights, economy-class seats on wide-bodied planes tend to be slightly larger, up to 18.5 inches. (A seat in an average economy car is 22 inches wide while an ordinary office chair measures 19 inches.) Boeing, which provides most of this country’s domestic fleets, claims that seat size has not shrunk over the years and in fact is not likely to change. What is changing is the other important dimension, what the airlines call “pitch,” the distance between rows. In coach, the industry standard is 31 to 32 inches from the back of one seat to the back of the one behind it. By comparison, business-class pitch on long hauls is 38 inches or more and can go as high as 60, while first-class ranges anywhere from 38 to 89.
Klaus Brauer, who surveys 90,000 passengers every year as Boeing’s resident expert on passenger comfort, is quoted in Air Transport World as saying, “We’ve always known intuitively—and it’s correct—that if we increase pitch, we make people more comfortable and if we reduce pitch, we make people less comfortable. Seat pitch is the ‘throttle’ by which airlines can increase or decrease comfort.”
Every carrier makes its own decisions on its fleet’s cabin configuration—how many rows of seats to put in and where. It follows that the more rows they squeeze in, the less the space between them. People who have been flying for 20 years or more swear that ever since deregulation, airlines have been cramming more and more economy-cabin passengers into the same amount of space. Industry consultants maintain that in the last decade pitch has dropped from 34 inches to 32, with some carriers closing to a claustrophobic 31 inches.
American Airlines reports that it is removing approximately 7,200 seats from its entire fleet of more than 700 jet aircraft (about 6.4 percent of coach capacity). This will increase pitch in 58 percent of the carrier’s coach seats to 34 inches or more. Close to 98 percent, the airline crows, will have seat room of at least 32 inches, “greater than today’s industry standard—creating more coach passenger space on a major carrier than at any time since the deregulation of the industry more than 20 years ago.” So what may seem like an airline’s bounty is really a retrenchment; even so, it is a bold move for American Airlines. It is, in fact, calling the complaining public’s bluff. If people flock to the carrier for the added breathing space, other major airlines are apt to follow. If not, the bottom line will speak right up and those 7,200 seats may go back in.
There is variation in seat size and pitch among all airlines, but not much. An exception is the midsize maverick Midwest Express, which generally serves smaller airports. It consistently earns passengers’ top comfort ratings by choosing to make all of its seats what it calls “first-class size, with economy prices.” A round-trip on Midwest Express between San Francisco and Boston, with a change in Milwaukee, was recently listed at $642. On the same dates, same destinations, a direct first-class flight on United was $3,264, while a coach ticket, with a change in Chicago, was $601. Most major airlines follow United’s example; comfort costs, almost all the time. American Airlines’ challenge could change that.
However, according to Boeing spokesman Sean Griffin, the real indicator of passenger comfort is neither seat width nor pitch. First, it is on-time departure and arrival. According to this theory, if the plane is late departing, the passenger who is worried about making a connection or arriving on time will be tense and there is not much the carrier can do to make the flight pleasant. Second, and perhaps most important to creature comfort, Griffin says, is sitting next to an empty seat. That has the effect of adding up to an extra 41/4 inches in seat width, according to the Boeing experts, as well as a feeling of privacy. (For long flights especially, most people prefer not to sit next to strangers.) Brauer says those lucky economy passengers who manage to have an empty seat next to them “will also report that the delays are shorter, that the meals are hotter, and the drinks are colder.” If this is true, the young family who sat on the rainy runway for three hours in Chicago in a crammed coach section was destined to arrive at its destination steamed.
Competing carriers are doing some fancy configuring to give more passengers the best chance of getting that empty seat next to them, without cutting down the “load factors,” thus profits. One way is simply to reconfigure cabin interiors, replacing the 2-5-2 arrangement (two seats on either side with five across in the middle) with 3-3-3. According to Brauer, when a plane is 70 percent full, the triples arrangement offers a much better chance of snagging that adjacent empty seat. Of course, if the cabin is full all bets are off and more passengers find themselves wedged into the middle seat, which Consumer Reports Travel Letter labels one of three “key discomfort factors.” (The other two: no seat recline and seating too close to the lavatory.) Chances for that empty seat get better on Saturday, midday, and evening departures.
In the best and bluest of skies, if the Boeing experts have it right, the most comfortable coach passengers sit next to an empty seat on a flight that departs and arrives on time. An exception might be the 350-pound professional wrestler flying across the country in one of the new generation of 737s, one of the tightest fits in the air. It is safe to assume that this man would prefer not to have to gamble on getting that magic empty seat. If pitch is the “throttle” with which carriers can increase comfort, then squeezed frequent fliers think it’s time for all airlines to pull full back and give them some coach space they can count on.
Illustration by Mary Lynn Blasutta
This article was first published in September 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.