The big squeeze: airlines cram more seats into ‘standard’ economy.

by Clive Dorman - consumer editor
December 31, 2016

American-syle “economy-plus” seating appears to be winning the battle for global travellers’ hearts and minds over the more expensive premium economy, an survey of seating options shows.

And searching for generous seat “pitch” – the forward space between seat rows – is now increasingly a lost battle as airlines begin pushing their economy seats closer together.

Those two trends in 2016 signal an approaching end-game in economy class where airlines are running out of options to maximise revenue and “yield” (average fares paid) as they get closer to the legal minimum seating space limits.

High-profile international airlines such as Air New Zealand and America’s JetBlue, which once promised industry-best economy space as part of their marketing, are now in retreat.  Today they promise minimums of no more than 31 or 32 inches (79-81 cms) per seat row when once they were offering 33-34 inches (84-86cms).

After its arrival on the American scene in 2000, JetBlue won many travellers’ hearts when it began offering a standard 34 inches (86 cms) of economy space per seat row.

But in January this year, with new management facing criticism on Wall Street for giving away too much without a return in yield terms,  the airline began adding 12 extra seats to its A320s and reducing seat pitch.

The only holdout in the crackdown on seating space is America’s biggest domestic airline, Southwest, which is still offering 32-33 inches (81-84cms) in its 737-800s and is refusing to charge extra for bags — a factor which has won it many awards for customer service.

Nevertheless, the standard economy seat pitch in the 737-700 —  the backbone of its 700-aircraft fleet — has shrunk by an inch to 31 inches (79 cms) in the past few years to squeeze in an extra seat row.

Airlines are using new so-called slimline seating to argue that the loss of seating comfort isn’t as bad as it seems, as forward knee space between seat rows can be up to two inches (5cms) more than in older designs.

Europe’s biggest airline by passengers carried, Ryanair, is now just two inches from hitting the legal minimum it is required to provide for passengers of 28 inches (71cms) per seat row.

Some airlines, such as US ultra-low-cost carriers Spirit and Frontier, as well as Spanish national carrier Iberia, have already hit the 28-inch legal minimum, at least on some short-haul flights in some aircraft types.

Yet a lack of seating space and comfort is invariably rated by travellers as their biggest gripe. An overwhelming 77 per cent in TripAdvisor’s 2015 poll of 2700 flyers ranked it the top grizzle about the whole experience, ahead of extra fees and pricing gotchas that rankled with 71 per cent.

Eighty-two per cent of travellers said they were strongly opposed to airlines installing narrower seats — right when many airlines began cramming an extra seat in each row of the popular Boeing 777-300ER and 777-200ER people movers, which are now 10-abreast instead of the maker’s recommended nine abreast — and 57 per cent said they were likely to pay for a better seat.

Sixty-five per cent of those who’d tried slimline seating said it was less comfortable than the seats it replaced.

In fact, air travel consumers think seat space is the major issue they face, according to the TripAdvisor survey. They listed the top three things that could improve the experience as more legroom (29 per cent), more separation from other travellers (26 per cent) and more comfortable seats (22 per cent).

However, airline managements now see seating comfort as a luxury for which you must pay extra and in the past year, “economy extra” seating has overtaken premium economy as the most popular value-for-money option.

For airlines, their attraction to premium economy at first was that it was a way of multiplying average fares paid — a yield booster regularly priced at two to three times the average discount economy fare paid.  It was,  in fact, a pauper’s business class resembling the business class that was available in the 1980s, compared to today’s product, which is a luxury version of the old first class.

However, travellers — especially those coming from the world’s biggest air travel market, the USA — have told airline managements what they really want is what they keep telling the pollsters: a comfortable seat without the five-star service and the five-star price tag.

The result is “economy comfort”, “economy plus” or “economy Xtra” where you can pay between $US20 and $US300 more, depending on the journey length, for between two and five more inches (five and 13 more centimetres) of legroom for an extra 5-10 per cent on the fare.

That’s a radically different product than premium economy, in price terms, where the markup on a $US1500 long-haul fare can be another $US1500.

However, standard economy seating of more than 32 inches (81 cms) per seat row is now a rarity.

Until about two years ago, airlines such as Air China and Thai Airways in Asia used to tempt travellers with up to 34 inches (86 cms)  of room to stretch their legs as standard economy, but the allowance has been reduced as managements have tightened up their seat policies and brought new jets into their fleets.

Nevertheless, there are pockets of knee-friendly marketing, especially in Asia. For the past two decades, South Korea has been a leader in the economy seating space stakes, with both major carriers, Asiana and Korean Airlines, excelling.

Asiana’s standard economy seat pitch on its Boeing 777-200s and 747-400s in 33-34 inches (84-86cms) – identical for Korean Airlines’ 777-200s, 777-300s and new 747-800Is as the two carriers, which have won many major awards, battle it out for market share.

In their market share contest nearby, Japan’s big two carrier – All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines – are the only two carriers in the world to have resisted what every other airline has adopted: nine-abreast seating in the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Boeing always envisaged the Dreamliner as an eight-abreast people mover, but ANA and JAL were the only airline customers for the jet who agreed and the super-squeezy nine-abreast configuration is now the norm.