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.”