Airlines continue to poke, prod, redesign and shrink their seats to maximize revenue while giving at least an illusion of comfort. Comfort-conscious passengers, beware.

Share story

When American Airlines announced the layout for its new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft earlier this year, it flirted with achieving a decidedly unflattering milestone: becoming the first mainline U.S. airline to sell seats with dimensions bordering on what fliers have come to expect from its budget competitors.

Three rows would have had just 29 inches of pitch, the distance from the back of one seat to the back of the next. That’s closer to the 28 inches on a low-cost carrier such as Spirit Airlines than the 31 inches coach travelers get on American’s current version of the 737.

American changed its mind a few weeks ago, leaving all economy seats with at least 30 inches between rows — still a downsize.

Aided by advancements in seat design that make tighter cabins feel less cramped, airlines large and small are trying to boost profits by packing more seats onto each aircraft. Travelers have almost come to expect it. But American’s attempted move also highlights another reality of flying today: Not all coach seats are created equal — sometimes, not even on the same plane.

Squeezed like pizzas

For now, only low-cost U.S. carriers such as Spirit and Frontier airlines have dipped to 28 inches of seat pitch — about enough room for two large Domino’s pizzas, placed crust to crust, assuming the passenger in front doesn’t recline. United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American’s coach seats typically have between 30 and 32 inches, depending on the type of aircraft and layout.

Pitch, a measurement which includes the thickness of the seat back, isn’t the same as legroom, nor is it the only factor in overall comfort.

When seats are thinner, airlines can slide them a little closer without eating into passengers’ personal space. That’s why American says its new thinner, lighter and more comfortable coach seats will make 30-inch pitch feel more like the old 31-inch pitch.

“It’s a balancing act major airlines have to conduct when deciding seat pitch in comparison to low-cost carriers,” said Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association trade group. “For United, American and Delta, the quandary is how to compete without diminishing their brand.”

Helping their cause are design advances. Seats used to have stiff metal or carbon fiber backrests that needed thick padding. Today, they have frames with netting that need less cushioning, trimming a few inches of thickness from each seat back, said Mark Hiller, CEO of Recaro Aircraft Seating, a German company whose U.S. airline clients include Alaska Airlines. They also provide a more comfortable ride, since they don’t rely on foam padding that can break down over time, according to Hiller.

Magazine pockets are moving from the bottom of the seat back to the top, giving passengers’ knees a little more wiggle room. Thinner armrests let airlines add a 10th seat to each coach row on a Boeing 777 without trimming seat width, he said.

Illusion of roominess

Still, there are limits to how much a seat can shrink, so manufacturers also try to give passengers the illusion of roominess and maximize comfort factors they can control, said Tom Eaton, design director at seat maker Lift by EnCore.

The company, which collaborated with Boeing to design economy seats tailored to its 737s and 787s, shaped seats to the aircrafts’ side walls to maximize width and avoided hard, cheap plastic in favor of softer, rounder materials passengers say feel more spacious, according to Eaton. India’s SpiceJet and two customers Eaton declined to name will be using the 737 seat.

With the newest designs, seat-makers can make 27-inch pitch feel about as comfortable as 29 would have felt in the past, Hiller said.

Whether 29 inches ought to be the benchmark is another question. Even if seat dimensions aren’t shrinking, the average airline customer isn’t either.

But Andrew Levy, United’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, said packing more seats on board helps with passengers’ real priority: keeping airfares low.

“For many of our customers, despite what they say, they care mostly about price and schedule … maybe schedule more so in the front of the cabin, but price in the back,” Levy said.

Jason Rabinowitz, director of airline research at Routehappy, which provides information on aircraft amenities on flight-shopping websites, agrees that price is important, but it’s not the only thing passengers care about.

“Some people who fly once a year will book whatever’s cheapest and don’t care. But a good percentage will go the extra mile to book a seat with an extra inch or two of legroom,” he said.

Finding the best

But finding a more comfortable seat takes some homework.

On a Boeing 737-800, Southwest gives passengers up to an inch more pitch — 32 to 33 inches — than Delta’s 31 to 32 inches. American allots 31 inches, United between 30 and 31 inches. United, American and Delta all sell coach seats with 34 inches between rows on some 737-800s, but United also has a version of the aircraft with 37 inches of pitch in Economy Plus — as much as business or first-class fliers get on different versions of the same plane.

On an Airbus A320, American has 31 to 32 inches between coach rows — up to 2 inches more than United and Delta’s narrower rows. All three beat Frontier’s 28 to 29 inches, but fall short of JetBlue’s relatively generous 34 inches.

If you like elbow room, that requires separate homework. American says its coach seats range from 16.5 to 18 inches wide. Frontier’s seat width fluctuates between 17.1 and 19.1 inches, depending on whether it’s a window, middle or aisle seat. Much-maligned middle seats typically get the top end of that range.

Knowing there’s variability doesn’t always help when booking. Passengers typically can’t tell which specific seats will be relatively larger than others in the same category, Rabinowitz said.

But some airlines and flight comparison websites such as seatguru.com will at least report the range of dimensions and amenities passengers can expect, such as onboard entertainment, Wi-Fi and power outlets.