Airlines, not passengers, at fault for recline wars

A third incident of “recline wars” has been reported, this time on a Delta Air Lines flight in which a dispute broke out between a passenger who reclined his seat and the passenger behind him who didn’t like it.

The New York Times has an article on the entire issue.

While the focus and debate has, so far, centered around who has rights–the passenger to recline or the passenger claiming reclining violates his space–the real issue, and blame, ought to rest with the airlines squeezing down legroom to a seat pitch of 28 inches (in the case of Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air) to an increasingly common 30 inches on legacy carriers.

Southwest Airlines in the USA decreased its generous 32 inches to 31 by installing so-called slim line seats in its Boeing 737s. The slim lines purport to still give the feeling of 32 inches. This still works.

But the trend toward squeeze is picking up steam and 31 inches may wind up being the outlier.

Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer each offer configurations that rely on 28 inch seat pitch: the 189-seat A320, the 240-seat A321, the 200 seat 737-8, the 160-seat CS300 and the 144-seat E-195-E2.

Cebu Pacific operates an Airbus A330-300 from The Philippines to the Middle East with more than 400 passengers, at 28 inch pitch.

Even Ryanair, notorious for its utter disdain toward the passenger, has a 30 inch pitch in coach. (Ryanair is now also offering a Premium section with greater pitch.)

Airlines offer more legroom for a higher fee, but the majority of passengers still fly the cheap seats, either by choice or because the premium seats are too expensive or sold out.

There have been lots of reports of air rage and passengers are blamed. We think the airlines are essentially inducing air rage and seat wars with lousy service, too many fees, uncomfortable airplanes, uncomfortable seating, often cranky cabin staff who have to deal with cranky customers as a result of the poor environment they are forced to fly in.

Boeing designed the 787 to be passenger friendly and to improve the passenger experience. The original intent was to have an eight-abreast coach class, providing comfortable seats. Airlines quickly went to nine abreast but in doing so went below an already-cramped 17 inch width seat. The 777 originally gained passenger accolades for comfort–at nine abreast in coach. Now, 70% of the airlines put in 10 abreast at a uncomfortable 17 inch seat width. For airplanes that fly 8,000 miles–some 12 or more hours–no wonder passengers are cranky.

If intelligence agencies want to extract information from terrorists, who needs water-boarding? Just make them fly coach on a long international flight.



12 Comments on “Airlines, not passengers, at fault for recline wars

  1. JetBlue still maintains 34 pitch in regular coach on their A320s and 33 pitch on A321s according to seatguru. Quite generous by today’s standards.

      • That would be a shame. By how much could they improve seat count and CASM by reducing say 2 inches?

        In the past, they’ve actually removed a row to improve not just passenger comfort, but also to save on F/A costs and weight.

        “Reducing seating to 150 seats from 156 will allow JetBlue to fly the Airbus 320 with three flight attendants instead of the current four, Mr. Neeleman said. That, and some fuel savings because the plane will carry less weight, will cut costs by about $6 million a year, even after taking into account some lost sales because of the fewer seats.” –

  2. Ryanair offers 30-inch pitch because they fly the 737-800, which has an exit-limit of 189 seats but room for more (if you have 28-inch pitch seats). Michael O’Leary has been one of those beating up Boeing for a 200-seat version of the 737-8MAX, which Boeing has now brought forth. So you can reasonably expect Ryanair to go to some proportion of 28-inch pitch seats as soon as they have an aircraft to accommodate them. In other words, don’t read too much into the 30-inch pitch at Ryanair.

    The 200-seat -8MAX was essentially a foregone conclusion once the 186 (or 189, outside the US) version of the A320 was brought forth by Airbus. Which also can’t happen without some number of 28-inch pitch.

    We’re headed into a world where the base seating for a ULCC is 28-inch pitch. From the point-of-view of keeping air travel feasible for the most price-sensitive, this is unavoidable. Fuel prices are multiples where they were 15 years ago. If we want to keep air travel affordable for the least wealthy among us, we can’t avoid this trend. But, so long as JetBlue and Virgin America are still flying, those who want to pay more to get greater comfort can. Horses for courses.

    The silver lining is that ULCCs generally also eliminate recline entirely. Not only does it reduce weight (around 1/2 pound per seat) and MX expense (less to break), but it reduces a very touchy point of contention between passengers.

    • The one inch extra legroom makes Ryanair’s current seating noticeably more comfortable than its rival Easyjet, who use A319s and A320s with denser maximum seating.

      Supposedly Ryanair are going up market on the basis that they aren’t as terrifying as people think they are (I agree with this – it’s a well run airline). I suspect the premium seats are there because they have the space and Boeing haven’t moved forward on the 737-800 with 200 seats. If they do, it will presumably start with the MAX

  3. I don’t think you should blame the airlines. Their customers are indicating with their purchases that cheaper fares are better than adequate space.

    Why would any airline increase the seat pitch and lose many customers to the airline that offers a cheaper trip?

    Maybe you can blame them for reducing seat pitch and not removing the recline but in 99% of cases there is no problem with using the recline. I would venture to suggest that the rage over recline is more prevalent in the US, because culturally we are brought up to defend our space.

  4. lol, as usual, Spirit Airlines can’t resist taking a swipe at its competitors.

    “Ben Baldanza, CEO of Spirit Airlines, says that if airlines install seats that can recline, passengers should have the right to recline. Of course, Spirit and Allegiant Air are the only U.S. airlines to install seats that don’t recline.

    “People should lose the emotion,” Baldanza says. “We’ve never had to divert because of legroom issues.””

  5. How many 787s would Boeing have sold if they required airlines to only install 8-abreast economy cabins? Boeing sales has been leading the charge for 9-abreast coach seating because it improves the competitiveness of their product.

    Yes – airlines are wrong for expecting passengers to behave as adults. All businesses must be based on the assumption that all customers are children.

  6. “Cebu Pacific operates an Airbus A330-300 from The Philippines to the Middle East with more than 400 passengers, at 28 inch pitch.”

    This is simply not true. Cebu does operate an Airbus A330 with more than 400 seats but at 30″/31″ pitch.

    @Editor: You should correct that and do some proper research the next time.

      • I don’t know if they have any other A330 configurations, but quoting from their website:

        “A330 Standard seats provide guests with 30inch seat pitch while Standard Plus seats will provide additional legroom with 32 inch seat pitch. Standard Plus seats are located at the rear section of the cabin.

        A320 Standard Plus Seats provide 28-29 inch seat pitch and are located near the forward exit allowing guests to have faster disembarkation.”

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