Airline seats are now 1.5 inches narrower than they used to be

The best seat in the house?
The best seat in the house?
Image: Reuters/Anthony Bolante
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It’s not your imagination—the already cramped, uncomfortable airline seat is shrinking even more.

The airlines have a good financial reason: Carriers are investing money, space, and design smarts—but mostly in the front of the plane.  While catering to business and premium economy flyers, they’re literally shrinking seats in coach.

At one point in aviation history, the width between coach seat armrests was about 18.5 in. on Boeings’s 777 in the ’90s and in the A380 in the 2000s.

Today, domestic travel is getting even more crunched. The width between coach seats is at best 8.25 in., and is usually less than that. According to SeatGuru.com, United Airlines flies Boeing 757s with seats that are only 17 in. wide, both in Economy and Economy Plus; Delta’s Airbus 319s  have seats that are a mere 17.2 inches wide in Economy and Economy Comfort.

But historically, coach travel has never been spacious. By comparison, the average width for seats at Dodgers Stadium is 20 in., and seats on Amtrak’s Acela are 23 in. across.

On airplanes there’s another measure you really notice: seat pitch. That’s the distance between seat backs, which is the difference between being able to open your laptop and having your knees pressed against your chest.

Typical seat pitch ranges from 31 to 34 in., but perhaps the most egregious of them all is on Spirit Airlines, which has a gut-cramming seat pitch of 28 in. To make matters worse, Spirit is also the leader of something called “preclined” seats, in which the back is stuck at a 3-in. recline. That’s not much worse than the typical 5-degree recline, but the fact that there’s no option doesn’t sit well with most passengers.

To make matters worse, some airlines are now trying to physically cram even more seats into the coach rows.

New American Airlines’ 777-300ERs fit 10 coach seats per row (3-4-3) compared to the old standard of nine seats across. The new seats are narrower than before at 17 in. across. Meanwhile, in the front of the aircraft, there are some noticeable improvements, like fully lie-flat 6’8” beds in First Class and fully lie flat seats that are 26 inches wide with aisle access in business.

In many cases, adding more seats is made possible by slimming down. The Recaro Slimline model of seat is already hugely popular in Europe—you may have encountered them on Lufthansa—and now they’re rolling out in the US on several airlines. United’s upgrade of its A319 and A320 fleet include the slimmer seats, which use lighter, thinner material.

Alaska Airlines has begun installing slimline seating on its new Boeing 737-900ERs, which are about 30% lighter than the older, bulkier models This move is estimated to save 8,000 gallons of fuel a year per aircraft. As a tradeoff to continue to entice passengers, Alaska is also installing power outlets in each seat.

Airlines try to sell the concept as “roomier,” since the thinner models have allowed them to add more seats without sacrificing a lot of space. And perhaps the change isn’t so bad: A recent TripAdvisor survey of almost 1,400 people found that nearly 50% weren’t even sure if they had sat on slimline seating. But of those who were aware, 83% said they were less comfortable than in traditional seats.

In the economy and coach sections, the seats are not going to get demonstrably better. Last year global airlines were projected to rake in $23.9 billion (pdf) in a la carte fees. The idea is simple: Eliminate basic comforts in coach seats, and passengers are forced to pay for them a la carte: additional legroom, Wi-Fi, meals, and other services to make the time in the air bearable.

So take my advice: Go to the bathroom before the flight takes off, and get a window seat. At least you can lean in one direction without annoying anyone, and no one will be crawling over you.