Long-legged Korean Air president Walter Cho is defying the push towards cramped economy seating by declaring he will not reduce the space between seats on his long-haul aircraft.
Cho acknowledged during a media roundtable at the Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines’ Assembly of Presidents Friday that airlines could boost profitability by reducing seat pitch.
But the lofty executive said Korean believed customer service started with product and the airline always began with economy class, which was what mattered to the masses.
“And …it’s not the taste of the food, it’s not the smile of the flight attendant, it’s the seat that’s most critical I believe,’’ he said.
“We need to give them something that’s bearable for 14 hours of flight – some of our long hauls go more than 10 hours.
“I’m a very tall guy and If I cannot fit in the seat we don’t put it in. Not to be colorful, but if I can fit and my knees don’t touch the front seat then it passes our standard.”
Airlines in recent years have been cramming more seats into main cabins in an attempt to maximize revenues, arguing that people who want a more comfortable seat can pay extra.
A number have introduced extra legroom seats in main cabins that attract a higher fare or an additional fee.
Premium economy – often a separate cabin between Business and economy class that offers wider seats, even more, legroom and extras such as better food and wine, has also taken off.
Cho said the airline was looking into premium economy but believed Korean’s economy class was close to other airline’s premium economy offering with a 34-inch seat pitch in its Airbus A380s and Boeing 777s.
“To do that, we have to reduce our economy pitch and I don’t want to do that,” he said.
Cho said he was not sure when Korean make a decision but noted it would be easier to make Korean’s entire economy premium than to fit in a new cabin on its aircraft.
He said the airline already had the lowest seat count on its A380s.
“If we do put in premium economy it’s going to go even further down and it’s going to affect our profitability,’’ he said.
Unhappiness with cramped economy conditions has reached a stage where US legislators have become involved.
The US Federal Aviation Administration has been tasked in its recent reauthorization bill with developing regulations on minimum standards for economy seating, including seat pitch, width and length.
But the legislation does not specify what this should be other than to say they would be minimum dimensions “that are necessary for the safety and health of passengers”.
Nor does it give any indication how the rules would relate to cramped seating already in place.
The FAA earlier this year rejected claims that cramped conditions and bigger passengers pose a safety risk in economy cabins.
It also indicated it does not have a problem with seat pitches as low as 27 inches, although it doubted airlines could sell a configuration that tight.
The lowest seat pitch currently is about 28 inches but many legacy carriers offer 31 to 32 inches.
Steve Creedy visited Jeju courtesy of Korean Air and the AAPA.