Southwest Airlines’ new ‘wider’ seat probably isn’t wider after all

Give it to me straight.
Give it to me straight.
Image: Reuters/Jeff Haynes
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News that Southwest Airlines would offer wider seats was a seemingly merciful turn of events for squeezed fliers.

The low-cost airline said on April 14 that the economy seats chosen for its new Boeing 737-800 and 737 Max jetliners will have an additional 0.7 inches of room. That increases the seat width from 17.1 to 17.8 inches, making them the widest economy seats on any Boeing 737, according to the company.

But there is reason for uncomfortable passengers to be skeptical.

For one thing, the better part of an inch that Southwest is marketing merely makes up for lost ground. Airplane seat widths have steadily declined in recent years, even as passengers have expanded in size. The standard seat width (paywall) in the 1960s was 17 inches, and bumped up to 18.5 inches in the 1990s and early 2000s as new aircraft grew larger. In 2013, Airbus launched a marketing campaign to make 18 inches the standard seat width on long-haul flights, though it has since resorted to narrower designs.

What’s more, a wider seat measurement doesn’t necessarily translate into more room.

The question around Southwest’s wider seats, according to several bloggers’ examinations, is in how they are measured. Airlines normally define “seat width” as the width of the seat cushion. But that doesn’t take into account the seat’s overall width, including the the armrests and the space between one person’s cushion and another. Southwest’s new seats have narrower armrests, which would explain where designers found the multiple inches of extra room per row needed to fit wider seat cushions.

That means the change yields slightly more reprieve for your posterior, at the expense of arm-resting room and space between the passengers.

On its website, Southwest says that “thinner armrests and a wider seat give customers additional space to move around.” Quartz has reached out to Southwest for comment and will update this post with any response.

The seat cushion measurement also doesn’t account for the width of the seat at shoulder level, an important factor in the comfort level of male travelers. The width between the midpoints of the armrests would be another better reading of space. The seat pitch (the distance between a given point on one seat to the seat in front of it) is another unknown, which the industry uses as another proxy for comfort. And that doesn’t factor in the thickness of the seat back, which directly affects leg room between one seat and another.