FLYING COACH IS GOING TO GET WORSE
By Joe Brancatelli
June 13, 2012 -- Here's some sobering -- no, when you think about it, bone-crunching -- news: Flying in coach is about to get worse. A whole lot worse.
Having already stripped coach fares of a variety of supposed perks -- in-flight meals, free checked bags, many types of advanced seat assignments and traditional boarding privileges -- most U.S. carriers are going after the last bastion of what passes for civility in the back of the aircraft. They are reducing the precious little seat space and legroom you currently get and are squeezing in more chairs per row and more rows per plane. And these newer, smaller, more densely configured seats have other drawbacks: They are thinner, the angle of recline has been reduced and the seatbacks won't recline as far as they once did.
Everywhere you look, the news from the back of the bus is, as I said, bone crunching.
• When it grandiloquently announced that it was improving the business classes on its Boeing 777 aircraft, American Airlines conveniently ignored the changes in coach. American's existing 777s are configured with nine seats per row in coach. But those planes and the new ones on order will now be outfitted with 10 seats per row. The new layout -- three seats on the left side of the aircraft, an aisle, four seats in the middle, an aisle and three seats on the right side -- is what the airline industry calls a 3x4x3 configuration. It'll reduce the width of each seat to just 17 inches between the armrests. As a point of comparison, the fairly standard desk chair I'm sitting in as I write this measures 22 inches between the armrests. A standard, armless dining-room chair is at least 18 inches wide and, of course, is not bolted to other dining chairs.
• When United Airlines last month released details of its soon-to-be-delivered Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the seat map showed the coach cabin configured 3x3x3. The nine-across layout compares unfavorably to the eight-across coach configuration used by Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, the first carriers to operate the Boeing 787. Given that the fuselage of the Dreamliner is narrower than that of the Boeing 777, a nine-across layout once again means seats that are just 17 inches wide.
• Southwest Airlines, the all-Boeing 737 operator, has traditionally offered about 32 inches of legroom ("pitch") at each of its chairs, which are configured 3x3. But the new interior of a recently delivered 700 series Boeing 737 squeezes in an extra row of the thinner, lighter-weight chairs. The result: seat pitch has been reduced to 31 inches and the seats recline just 2 inches instead of 3 inches, the standard on Southwest's existing jets. More than 400 Boeing 737-700s operated by Southwest and its AirTran Airways subsidiary will be retrofitted to add a row of seats and reduce the chairs' pitch and recline.
• More than half of the nation's flights are operated by regional airlines on behalf of the better-known major carriers. These so-called commuter lines use much smaller aircraft with less headroom and tighter aisles to go with the tight seating. A 37-seat Dash-8 that carries the computer code and colors of US Airways, for instance, offers 2x2 seating, but the chairs have just 31 inches of legroom and are only 17 inches wide.
• Then there's Spirit Airlines, home of the worst seats and least consumer-friendly policies in the skies. Some of its Airbus A320 aircraft offer seats with just 28 inches of legroom and the chairs do not recline at all.
• Worst of all, there is the matter of load factor, the industry's term for the percentage of seats actually filled. Twenty years ago, the load factor hovered in the low- to mid- 60 percent range. That meant the middle seats in a jet with a 3x3 configuration was usually empty and passengers could spread out. Not today. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the industry is filling around 77 percent of its seats. That means most middle seats are occupied, increasing the crunch and reducing the amount of personal space each passenger can use.
Airlines don't have any long or involved explanations for why they are shoving more and more flyers into smaller and smaller chairs. Their answer is simple: You're not paying enough when you fly coach -- the industry pointedly calls the cabin "economy class," of course -- so they have no choice but to maximize the real estate on a plane and wedge as many seats into the space as possible.
But the industry does offer an elaborate song-and-dance about how the newest seats being installed on planes maximize the space they do allot to flyers thanks to thinner cushions, less bulky seat frames and tricks like moving the seatback pockets away from your knees and up toward the top of the chair. But the improvements are more chimera than comfortable when put to the test.
At a press gathering to celebrate a new plane earlier this month, a group of aviation writers were ogling one airline's newest coach seats and blithely repeating the carrier's talking points about increased personal space. At least until I challenged one of them -- a comparatively widebody like your humble scribe -- to sit in a seat.
"See, not too bad," he said as he folded down the tray table.
Then I sat in the seat in front of him.
"Pretty good," I heard him say from behind. "I can even put my laptop on the tray."
Then I reclined my chair. All I heard after that was: "Ohmygod..." And, needless to say, all discussion of the airline's bullet points about comfort ended.
Is there any way to escape what can only be described as the Seven Circles of Coach Hell? There are just three routes that I can suggest:
• Fly JetBlue Airways whenever possible. The airline might not be perceived as trendy after a dozen years of operation, but it still offers the roomiest coach seats in the domestic skies. Its Airbus aircraft, configured 3x3, offer chairs that are 17.8 inches wide with 34 inches of legroom. Its slightly smaller Embraer aircraft are configured 2x2 and are outfitted with chairs that measure 18 inches between the armrests and have 33 inches of pitch. No other carrier comes close to the comfort level JetBlue routinely provides in coach.
• Use SeatGuru.com as your guide. The seat maps and other tools offered at SeatGuru.com are invaluable. Besides serving up seat width and seat pitch statistics for virtually every carrier, every aircraft and every configuration in the skies, it offers intelligent commentary on seats that are better and worse than standard.
• Buy your way out of coach. United, Delta and JetBlue have extensive premium-economy services that offer a bit more legroom for just a few dollars more than the coach seat you currently buy. American Airlines has committed to adding roomier seats for purchase in coach, too. More and more international airlines are also adopting the concept. If you're an elite-level frequent flyer, you may even be able to upgrade to the better seats for free, sometimes at the time you book, sometimes when you check-in for your flight. And, budget permitting, you can always buy (or upgrade) to a business- or first-class seat.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2012 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.