The past month was the worst for the airlines in recent memory.
Images of a bloodied passenger, a manhandled mother, and a mishandled-to-death giant bunny were splashed all over the media, accompanied by editorials excoriating the airlines. So bad was it that earlier this week, Congress held the first of what could be several hearings to determine what’s gone wrong with the country’s airlines, and what can be done to fix them.
With so much negative attention focused on them, you’d think the airlines might give travelers a break, at least temporarily, until Congress and the media turn their attention elsewhere. You know, for the optics. But no. In the battle between good P.R. and good profits, the latter trumps the former.
The latest assault on travelers’ dignity and comfort comes from the airline that once boasted “More Room Throughout Coach,” American Airlines. That was in 2000, and three years later, American scrapped its roomy seating initiative, reverting to the mean, which meant returning seat pitch (the distance between seats) to the industry average of around 31 or 32 inches.
Now, as reported by Skift, American is planning to offer only 30 inches of pitch on its new B737 Max planes; and in three rows, the pitch will drop even further, to a paltry 29 inches. That’s the same legroom available on ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier, and is understood as the sacrifice flyers make in order to enjoy the very lowest airfares.
A similar seat squeeze is under consideration for American’s older B737s, which already received more seats following the American-US Airways merger.
American claims that the additional density will be barely noticeable, because the new seats will be the latest so-called slimline design, which uses less padding in the seat back to allow the fitment of more seats in the same space. Of course, less padding means less comfort; and more seats mean more claustrophobia. Which explains why slimline seats are widely known by a less flattering name: crusher seats.
American’s move is hardly a one-off; it’s part of an industry-wide trend to maximize profit at the expense of flyers’ comfort. Even JetBlue, which still boasts the most coach legroom, has been pushing seats closer together.
Average coach legroom has decreased by 10 percent over the past 20 years, from 34 inches to between 30 and 32 inches, even as the average height, weight, and girth of flyers have all increased. Meanwhile, the airlines are flying fuller than ever, with load factors averaging more than 80 percent even during the lowest-demand months.
As the world’s largest airline, American’s lead is likely to be followed by other airlines. Unfortunately for travelers, it’s leading in the wrong direction.
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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and almost that long writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.
This article first appeared on SmarterTravel.com, where Tim is Editor-at-Large.