Elbow Room En Route as Southwest Widens Seats on Max Jets

Southwest Airlines Co. plans a little something extra for passengers when its Boeing Co. 737 Max jets debut in 2017: more elbow room.

Travelers used to over-coziness in coach will get some of the widest seats on U.S. single-aisle planes -- 17.8 inches (45.2 centimeters), instead of 17.2 inches now. Slimmer frames create additional sitting space in each row, Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven said.

In an industry where many carriers are cramming in more main-cabin fliers, even fractional improvements can matter. Economy upgrades have been an afterthought as airlines woo high-fare customers with amenities such as lie-flat beds, a niche where Southwest, the largest discounter, doesn’t compete.

“If Southwest markets the wider seat advantage, it may indeed give the airline a preference among passengers who are brand-neutral” on longer trips, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco. Southwest’s average flight length in 2013 was 693 miles (1,115 kilometers), 24 percent more than a decade earlier.

Southwest, whose 737 fleet is the world’s biggest, will be the initial commercial operator for the Max, giving the industry a glimpse of how Boeing’s latest redesign of its top-selling model may reshape short-haul flying.

The new seats are becoming available for the first time on the Max, Van de Ven said in an interview at Southwest’s Dallas headquarters. The airline declined to identify the manufacturer or say how much the equipment costs.

‘Improved Tremendously’

“The seat technology has improved tremendously over the years,” Van de Ven said. “It’s allowing us to get the seats closer to the sides of the airplane by almost an inch, maybe a little bit more than that. You can then use that increased space in a little bit of additional seat width.”

Economy-class seats in American Airlines Group Inc.’s narrow-body Boeing 737-800 are 17.2 inches wide, and 18 inches on a Boeing MD-80, according to travel website Seatguru.com. The MD-80s are among American’s oldest jets, and are being retired.

Seats on Delta Air Lines Inc.’s single-aisle planes are 17.2 inches wide, while narrow-bodies at United Continental Holdings Inc.’s United Airlines have seats that are 17 to 18 inches wide, according to the website.

While any additional space might be welcomed among U.S. travelers -- a 2012 federal report found 69 percent of adults were overweight -- the promotional value of Southwest gaining less than one inch of seat width was questioned by Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant Teal Group.

Price Driver

The “ultimate commodity market” is U.S. domestic flying, Aboulafia said in a phone interview. “People go to a website, click on price, period.”

Fuel economy on the Max has long been a sales point for Chicago-based Boeing, which began taking orders in 2011. Test flights are due to start in 2016. The planes will cut jet-kerosene consumption by as much as 15 percent on the most-recent 737 models and 22 percent over the oldest versions being replaced by Southwest, Van de Ven said.

Those projections exceed Southwest’s original estimates of about 12 percent and 18 percent, and Boeing’s own calculations for gains of gains of 14 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Boeing’s figures are based on flight lengths of 575 miles, said Lauren Penning, a spokeswoman.

“At longer ranges you’d get even more efficient,” Penning said in a phone interview.

Max Orders

Southwest has orders for 200 Max models along with options for 191 more. With the airline preparing to keep flying longer routes by adding international destinations in Latin America, improved efficiency and roomier seats both come into play.

“We’re going to have great comfort in those seats,” Van de Ven said.

Adding the Max also marks a shift by Southwest to larger aircraft capable of carrying more passengers, according to a report last month by David Strauss, a New York-based aerospace analyst with UBS Securities LLC. The majority of the airline’s current planes seat 137 to 143 people.

As Southwest increases service to airports such as New York’s LaGuardia and Washington’s Reagan, where flights are limited, “it’s going to examine how to maximize its revenue potential,” Atmosphere’s Harteveldt said. “Moderately larger airplanes certainly play a role in that.”

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