AIN Blog: The Declining State of Economy Class Seating

 - June 3, 2011, 10:36 AM

In releasing its annual summer travel forecast recently, the Air Transport Association of America (ATA) projected modest, 1.5-percent growth in passengers over last year and expressed relief that people continue flying despite the overall economic impact of higher fuel prices. I would venture that ATA should worry as well about the cumulative impact of wedging people in unbearable economy-class seating. Witness the aborted United Airlines flight to Ghana on May 29, turned back to Washington Dulles with an F-16 escort after a passenger reclined his seat and a fight erupted.

In recent weeks, I’ve had occasion to fly economy class on a couple of different flights with a major U.S. carrier–United Airlines–and I can attest to the fleeting resentment one feels when your forward neighbor has the audacity to recline. The very next thought that enters your mind is, “That’s fine. I’ll do the same to the person behind me.” But is that any way to travel? How do you maintain your composure when angling out of a bucket seat with your airline-issued pillow and blanket in hand (international flights only), headphones tethered to the armrest, tray table down and carry-on bag stored under the seat in front of you?

TripAdvisor’s SeatGuru offers a comprehensive listing of airline seat dimensions, indicating that most long-haul economy class seats are about 17 or 18 inches wide, less than the armrest in front of my computer keyboard. Now, I may be a wide body, but I’m no A380. It’s not seat width that aggravates me; it’s legroom, as I apparently have longer thighbones than the majority of the U.S. male population. SeatGuru lists seat pitch, an indicator of legroom, of 30 to 32 inches for many airlines. My forward neighbor may choose to recline, but he’s going to have my knees pressed into his kidneys.

Unless I’m imaging things, the situation with rank-and-file economy class seating appears to be worsening. Likely, it’s because of that latest phenomenon–economy plus seating–that has further stratified passenger cabins along economic lines. You can imagine the airlines, in search of new revenue streams, notching back seats on the floor tracks that run the length of the fuselage.

On my most recent flight, a Boeing 757, United (our industry representative example here) promoted a seating upgrade with the slogan, “not just legroom, laptop room.” That would have helped, as I was unable to fully deploy my svelte MacBook Pro because of the aforementioned reclining neighbor. United Economy Plus seating provides five additional inches of legroom to the standard 31 inches of seat pitch in coach for $69. That’s about 14 bucks an inch.

I think that United and other carriers should be honest and call it what it is. Thirty-six inches of legroom is still just Economy. Anything less is Economy Minus.