U.S. airlines are taking out old, bulky seats in favor of so-called slimline models that take up less space from front to back, allowing for five or six more seats on each plane.
The changes, covering some of the most common planes flown on domestic and international routes, give the airlines two of their favorite things: more paying passengers, and a smaller fuel bill because the seats are slightly lighter. It's part of a trend among the airlines to view seats as money-makers, not just pieces of furniture. Add a few inches of legroom and airlines can charge more for tickets. Take away a few inches and they can fit more seats on the plane.
The new seats generally have thinner padding. And new layouts on some planes have made the aisles slightly narrower, meaning the dreaded beverage cart bump to the shoulder happens more often.
Whether the new seats are really closer together depends on how you measure. By the usual measure, called "pitch," the new ones are generally an inch closer together from front to back as measured at the armrest.
Airlines say you won't notice. And the new seats are designed to minimize this problem. The seats going onto Southwest's 737s have thinner seatback magazine pockets. United's new seats put the magazine pocket above the tray table, getting it away from passengers' knees. And seat-makers saved some space with lighter-weight frames and padding.
New seats going into United Airlines' Airbus A320s are an inch closer together from front to back. The new seats Southwest has put on nearly its entire fleet are 31 inches apart, about an inch less than before. In both cases, the airlines were able to add an extra row of six seats to each plane. Southwest went from 137 seats to 143.
United's says the new seats make each A320 1,200 pounds lighter. Southwest says the weight savings is cutting about $10 million per year in fuel spending. In addition, the extra seats allow Southwest to expand flying capacity 4 percent without adding any planes, says spokesman Brad Hawkins, while also collecting more revenue from the additional passengers.
International passengers are feeling crowded, too.
As recently as 2010, most airlines buying Boeing's big 777 opted for nine seats across. Now it's 10 across on 70 percent of newly built 777s, Boeing says. American's newest 777s are set up 10-across in coach, with slightly narrower seats than on its older 777s. Boeing's new 787 was originally expected to have eight seats across but United Airlines, the only U.S. carrier currently flying it, went with nine across. Those seats are just 17.3 inches wide. So, passengers will have a skinnier seat for United's 12-hour flight from Houston to Lagos on a 787 than on its one-hour flight from Denver to Omaha on a different plane.
Delta Air Lines has already added slimline seats to about one-third of its fleet.