Legroom on Planes: The Real Story

There have been several reports about shrinking legroom on planes lately, but is it news? As far back as January, FareCompare reported Southwest was adding six seats to its planes, which the airline claimed would not involve any "sacrifice" of passenger space, but that is not the whole story.

Listen as air travel expert Rick Seaney, a tall fellow, talks about cramped seats.

What Airlines Hide about Legroom

What Added Seats on Southwest Means to You

More seats equals less room per passenger, at least according to these measurements which were provided to FareCompare by a Southwest spokesperson:

  • Seat recline drops from 3 inches to 2 inches
  • Seat pitch is reduced from 32 inches to 31 inches

Airplane Legroom: Do We Need New Sizes?

The seat pitch is the space between the back of your seat and the seat in front of you, and as the Southwest notes, a 31-inch pitch "remains in line with the industry average." However, it still adds up to less room although Southwest believes this is mitigated by more personal space on either side of each seat – but that's because the armrests are now thinner.

Other Airlines' Shrinking Seats

Other airlines are also shrinking seats or at least the space allotted for them. JetBlue, according to reports, is reducing its seat pitch from 33 inches to 32 inches in several rows aboard its Embraer E190 planes. Canada's WestJet is also cutting legroom. There's a good reason for these changes.

Woman Sues Southwest over 'Too Small' Seats

Smaller Seats, Bigger Bottom Lines, Fewer Fees

The math is simple: more passengers per plane means more revenue for the airlines – if they can fill those seats, that is. And as Southwest says, more seats means the carrier can continue to "avoid unwanted customer fees while operating in this high-cost environment." In other words, you still get two free checked-bags on Southwest – thanks in part to more cramped seating.

Top 5 Airline Fees Worth Paying

Fees for Premium Seats

Sometimes, airline fees are worth paying and depending on a traveler's situation, a premium seat fee may be one of them. This now common practice – even in economy class – of airlines doling out sought-after aisle and window seats for a price can be affordable even for the frugal. Fees vary from a few dollars on up, often depending on the length of a flight. A recent example is a United flight from Chicago to Hartford that offered window and aisle seats in the front of the economy section for an extra $33 – middle seats and a few window/aisle seat in the rear of the plane were available at no charge.

How Families can Sit Together Despite Seat Fees

It Could be Worse

For those bemoaning the lack of legroom, it can be worse. Discount carrier Spirit offers many seats with a knee-crunching seat pitch of just 28 inches – and many of these seats do not recline at all. Spirit flyers say, it's the price you pay for dirt cheap fares.

But would they pay for standing room-only flights? This idea has been floated by European discount carrier Ryanair – whose CEO has never met a publicity stunt he couldn't embrace – but so far, he hasn't acted on this impulse. Then there's the Skyrider: a kind of crouching seat (see the video) that has mercifully not been adopted by any airline anywhere. Yet.

Anne McDermott
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