Lonely Planet Writer

Airlines shrink size of seats in uncomfortable trend

Airbus, one of the world’s largest airplane manufacturers, has debuted a fresh seat configuration for its A380 double-decker jets: 11 seats per row.

Airbus shows a model of its new 11-seater formation for flights.
Airbus shows a model of its new tighter formation for flights. Image by Courtesy of Airbus

Ultimately airlines, not manufacturers, decide about seating. Some may not take this option for extra seats. Yet some cost-cutting airlines may like the idea of cramming in an extra passenger per row in a 3-5-3 pattern. Emirates has already expressed interest in the more capacious design.

Airbus also announced that it will offer an extra seat per row on its A330s, its more ordinary-sized aircraft. That would mean 9 seats per row.

Rival manufacturing giant Boeing is also participating in the trend. In 2010, airlines ordered 85% of its long-haul 777 model in versions with nine seats per row. By 2013, barely 30% of its 777 aircraft orders were for nine-seaters; the 10-seater was more popular.

The new five-seat combination in the middle, instead of four.
The new five-seat combination in the middle, instead of four. Image by Courtesy of Airbus

Legroom is shrinking, too. . On the new Boeing 777 and Airbus A380, seat pitch could be as low as 27 to 29 inches if airlines want.

The industry standard for the distance between one seat and another in front of it in coach class used to be about 33 inches. But now in North America and Europe, 31 is now typical. Last November, JetBlue, the US airline with the most generous legroom for standard coach seats, said it was shrinking them from 34.7 inches to 33.1 inches.

In April, the United States government convened a committee to investigate the safety of airline seat crowding. As context: the U.S. government does not regulate seat sizes. It only insists that carriers provide enough room so that passengers could evacuate within 90 seconds or less with half of the exits blocked.

Yet some industry players wonder if the U.S. Department of Transportation should begin imposing seat size requirements. The Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections   has heard testimony from flight attendants, airline owners, and consumer rights groups about seat density on airplanes, among other issues of passenger safety in the skies.

In the meantime, savvy travelers may find that researching seats before a trip might help them reserve the best — or least uncomfortable — ones. User review sites such as SeatGuru (which powers TripAdvisor Flights search results) and RouteHappy (which powers Google Flights search results) provide user-generated advice on seats,  evaluating them by criteria such as legroom, whether a seat reclines, its proximity to a lavatory, and other factors.