How important is legroom to you when choosing an airline?
JetBlue has been claiming for itself the title of the airline with “the most legroom in coach” for years. With most airlines adding seats and in the process reducing legroom, it’s a claim that resonates powerfully with flyers put off by other airlines’ crusher seats, some with just 28 inches of pitch (the industry-standard measure of distance between seats).
As the average pitch has declined to between 31 and 32 inches, the competitive pressure on JetBlue to maintain its industry-leading 34-inch pitch has diminished. Why bother giving customers two extra inches of legroom when the “most legroom” claim remains valid even when JetBlue’s space advantage is just an inch, or even less?
You can see where this is headed, right? Why not reduce JetBlue’s seat pitch just enough to maintain the competitive advantage, while adding more seats and increasing the potential revenue-per-flight? That question, when posed by JetBlue shareholders and marketing executives, leads inevitably to doing just that, never mind the wants and needs of another stakeholder group, the airline’s customers.
And so, yes, according to Bloomberg, JetBlue will soon begin a three-year retrofit of its A320 planes that includes the addition of 12 extra seats, upping the capacity from 150 to 162 paying passengers. JetBlue has boasted to investors that the resulting additional passenger revenue will generate $100 million in financial benefits for the company.
That revenue gain comes at the expense of passenger comfort. Squeezing in the new seats will reduce pitch by two inches, to 32 inches. Which is, not coincidentally, just the amount JetBlue needs to continue claiming it offers the most legroom in coach.
In addition to the most-legroom claim, JetBlue will be touting the planes’ 10-inch touchscreen inflight entertainment systems, more customizable mood lighting, and larger overhead bins. But those are sideshows. Center stage will be the seats, and JetBlue’s decision to sacrifice customer comfort for increased profits and share price.
No surprise there—it’s a story as old as commerce itself. But for JetBlue loyalists who believed the airline was at least slightly more customer-focused than its competitors, the loss of legroom can only rankle. Unless they also happen to be JetBlue stockholders.
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.