Last updated: 11:35 AM ET, Wed March 23 2016

How Airlines Are Getting Creative in Squeezing More Passengers into Planes

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | March 23, 2016

How Airlines Are Getting Creative in Squeezing More Passengers into Planes

All fliers can do is sigh when airlines talk of packing more seats into their planes. Economy class already feels overcrowded, but carriers want to increase capacity as much as possible, so the trend of “densification” is likely to continue.

This trend has even captured the attention of Congress. New York Senator Charles Schumer introduced an amendment to recent FAA reauthorization bills that would have regulated exactly how small airlines could make their seats. This is unlikely to make it into the final bill because of the strong airline lobby.

There is hope for passengers

New designs and cabin concepts seek to address the problem of shrinking seats. One of the most promising designs comes from a Denver-based firm called Molon Labe Designs. It is called the Side-Slip Seat. These new chairs, which are currently in their testing and development phase, have two major positive attributes.

First, the aisle seat slides over the middle seat. This means that the aisles can be made much wider. This could help speed up boarding and disembarking and it would allow passengers in wheelchairs to be taken right up to their seat more easily.

The end of the arm rest wars? 

The other attribute that will excite passengers is that the seats are somewhat staggered. The middle seat is placed slightly lower than the seat on either side. The allows each seat to have its own pair of arm rests. The unpopular middle seat, because of its lower spacing, offers a little bit of extra arm space and seat width.

The side-slip idea is attractive for airlines as well. First of all, the staggered design will allow for greater seat density. Molon Labe CEO Hank Scott explains that his firm’s design could be seen as more than a seat. It could also serve as a marketing tool for airlines: “For the airline marketing folks, maybe they can offset the news that pitch is going to be reduced with the news that passengers will have more width in all three seats. Our aisle and window seats are still the standard 18 in. wide, but the stagger gives them—and the 20-in. middle seat—more space.”

Not all airlines are shrinking their seats

It should be noted that some airlines are looking to new layouts and new cabin shapes to increase the number of seats without reducing seat size. Both Delta and American, for example, have changed cabin layouts and replaced older elements with newer features in order to reduce the amount of space they take up. This strategy has helped American add 10 seats to its Boeing 737s and Delta add 10 to its 757s without reducing seat pitch.

That said, another trend is emerging. An example of this trend is Lufthansa’s new Airbus A320neos, which will have seat pitches of just 28 inches in the last four rows. This kind of below-economy class works for airlines plans because it allows them to create more classes in their cabins and upsell upgrades to people who can’t stand the lack of space.

There is definitely a trend towards denser seating layouts. Airlines seem to be handling densification differently, with some reducing seat size and some taking other measures. However, new seat designs could mean that smaller seats could actually end up providing comforts that the current crop of larger chairs don’t have.


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