Feeling unloved already, coach passengers may have more to grouse about as Boeing Co. (BA) shoehorns 11 more seats into the economy cabin of a new 737 model.
In an airline industry where every square inch of space is mined for revenue, the big squeeze is on in the back of the plane. Carriers are changing the shape of lavatories, streamlining galley areas where they store drink carts and adding “slimline” seats with thinner padding to shave centimeters off the distance between rows.
At the same time, they’re making life more comfortable for high-fare customers in business class by installing comfy flatbed seats and 15-inch (38-centimeter) video monitors.
Steven Ekovich, a Tampa, Florida-based golf course broker, is tired of people reclining their seats into his knees as he flies coach around the country. At 6-foot-1, Ekovich has had to get creative to minimize the discomfort on some Southwest Airlines (LUV) flights, which have open seating.
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“I always try to grab a seat in the aisle or window, and then when there are only middle seats left, I always find the skinny woman in the crowd and invite her to sit down,” said Ekovich, a managing director of real estate firm Marcus & Millichap’s Golf and Resort Properties Group.
Boeing announced at this week’s Farnborough Air Show in the U.K. that it will build a new variant of the narrow-body 737 Max 8 aircraft with as many as 200 seats. That’s 11 more than the Max 8 now under development. Airbus Group NV (AIR) also is boosting the coach cabin in a competing jet, the A320neo, by adding nine additional seats to reach 189.
Lauren Penning, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based Boeing, said it’s up to the airlines to determine how to configure the plane to add the extra two rows. That could mean changing the dimensions or positioning of lavatories, for example, or reducing space between seats by 2 inches, Penning said. Adding an extra exit door lets Boeing increase the passenger count without violating regulations, she said.
“With this, we’re just giving our customers another option to make more revenue,” Penning said by telephone. “If their routes can take this additional capacity, then that’s more revenue for them.”
Industry consultants said Boeing is likely to find buyers for the as-yet unnamed 737 Max 8 variant outside the U.S. The 200-seat model is meant for all-economy airlines, such as Dublin-based Ryanair Holdings Plc (RYA), that are more prevalent in Asia and Europe.
Boeing may find more patience for tighter spaces in Asia, which has many short-haul carriers and a population that is generally smaller in stature than in its home market, said Bob Mann, a Port Washington, New York-based aviation consultant. U.S. fliers may balk if airlines try to reduce the seat “pitch” -- the distance from one seat to the same point on the seat ahead of it -- enough to accommodate 11 extra seats, Mann said.
Spirit Airlines Inc. (SAVE), a Miramar, Florida-based low-cost carrier, already is known for its leg-cramping 28-inch pitch, compared with an industry standard 30 or 31 inches. Mann said Boeing may need to shrink the distance even more to add the 11 seats. Boeing’s Penning said airlines could add 11 seats to the new 737 Max 8 variant without dropping to 27 inches.
“It is so austere that it would be even beyond the pale of Spirit,” Mann said.
For now, Spirit only has single-aisle Airbus jets in its fleet but potentially could look at Boeing in the future, said Charlie Rue, the vice president in charge of the carrier’s supply chain.
“We look at a lot of things,” Rue said of Boeing’s new 200-seat offering. “I wouldn’t say anything more than that.”
Southwest Airlines Co. foresees sticking with its current 175-seat configuration in its largest 737s, said Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman. The Dallas-based discount carrier will be the first operator of the 737 Max 8 when those planes start arriving in 2017.
Airlines have consistently tweaked their coach cabins to squeeze in seats and improve flight economics, said Ranga Natarajan, a senior product manager at travel website SeatGuru.com. In Boeing’s popular 777 wide-body jet, airlines largely have moved from a roomy nine seats across to a tighter 10. Carriers also narrowed seats to a 17-inch dimension from 18 inches and introduced seats that don’t recline much, he said.
Some carriers are adding USB ports and Wi-Fi in an effort to keep passengers from realizing how cramped they are, said Natarajan, who is based in Newton, Massachusetts.
Toulouse, France-based Airbus may have the most radical idea yet for saving space in coach, a bicycle-like seat and a back rest. According to patent documents filed in Europe, the seat rotates down when not in use. Mary Anne Greczyn, a spokeswoman for Airbus, played down the patent application as a “non-story” and said the seat is a concept only.
Nick Vojnovic, a 6-foot-6-inch restaurant executive who has accrued 2 million miles (3.5 million kilometers) with Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL), already has trouble with current coach configurations and isn’t up for any more cutbacks. His frequent-flier status with Delta usually lets him snag a roomier Economy Comfort seat, which offers up to 4 extra inches of legroom, or at least an emergency-exit row.
“As the seats get tighter and tighter, my marketing manager, who’s 4-foot-11, has no problem,” said Vojnovic, president of Tampa-based Little Greek Franchise Development Inc. “But for people who are tall, it’s a big problem. You’re sore and achy and you just feel physically beat up.”
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