How to avoid airline seat “densification” (you’ll LUV this)

If you’re looking for humane economy class seats, buy a ticket on Southwest Airlines.

The carrier guarantees the best coach seating of any major U.S. airline despite being denigrated by some business fliers for its cattle-car boarding processes and all-coach seating.

As the major legacy airlines in the U.S. compete for the smallest possible distance between economy class seats, Southwest has kept its effective seat pitch steady. As their major competition takes away personal space from passengers, Southwest is either keeping the spacing of its seats steady or increasing it through installation of new seats.

I can’t think of any other industry in the U.S. where the goal of the major players appears to be worse customer service, less space and and more unpleasant experience. In this kind of warped marketing world, the major US carriers are sowing the seeds of their own demise.

An article published by CAPA Centre for Aviation, one of the big names in airline trade magazines, focused on what they call densification.

American, Delta and United remain bullish about their strategies to grow capacity through seat densification, often characterizing the additional seats as efficient generators of capacity at nominal costs.

It also appears that the densification efforts are a competitive response to one another as the three large network airlines seek to offer the same size aircraft in order to reap the benefits that more densely configured jets deliver.

The airline that has the least compassion for its passengers is Delta. That airline has increased its seat densification more than any other. Delta refers to packing more and more passengers into its planes as “efficiency.”

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In late 2014, Delta heralded its efficiency gains by operating more densely configured aircraft. The airline indicated it planned to increase capacity by 3 percent in 2015, despite the removal of 11 aircraft. Much of that reduction was driven by Delta’s long standing initiative to reduce its fleet of 50-seat jets. It plans to end 2015 with 189 50-seat regional jets, down from 474 in 2009. The latest seat additions to the narrowbodies will be completed in 2016-2017, which should drive even more capacity.

As American, Delta and United continue their race to provide less and less personal space on aircraft, the seating on Southwest is looking relatively luxurious, and their seat pitch is consistent. Legacy carriers have coach seat pitch set between 28 and 31 inches — that’s down by up to five inches from before airline deregulation — and passengers have no idea what they are buying.

So, the bottom line, after all is said and done, is that Southwest, once known for its cattle car boarding and all-coach seating, is now becoming known as the most luxurious choice for coach passengers looking for consistent seating pitch. Passengers can consistently expect seat pitch of 31-33 inches. On all other major airlines, the seat pitch is a crap shoot, with some offering as little room in coach as Spirit Airlines and Allegiant.

Southwest operates its Boeing 737-700 (the backbone of its fleet) in a single class 143-seat configuration with 31-inch pitch and its 737-800s in a 175-seat configuration with 32- to 33-inch pitch.

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As regards the boarding process, Southwest’s line-up of passengers in boarding zones seems absolutely civilized when compared with the crowding and jostling that takes place with American, Delta and United’s zone system.

Just as the major legacy network airlines are crying crocodile tears over the commoditization of the airline product, this new battle to have the most uncomfortable seats is working towards a true commoditization of airline travel. There is, in fact, virtually no difference between flying on Delta, American or United. If the labels were stripped off those aircraft and flight attendant uniforms replaced with generic suits, no one would be able to tell the difference.

Already, Southwest — with its focus on customer service, its consistency of product and its shunning of ancillary fees, together with change and cancellation fees — is taking traffic from the three legacy carriers every year. That trend will be accelerating as Southwest begins its international service. Plus, ultra-low-cost carriers will also keep growing and stealing the leisure travelers from American, Delta and United. Soon, the legacy carriers will have an even greater dependency on their business traffic.

That business traffic is also under attack by the airlines themselves as they make working with corporate travel managers and travel agencies more and more difficult. Where once the airlines had a goose that could lay golden eggs of record profits, as competition has faded and jet fuel prices have dropped, they are finding ways to be their own worst enemies.

When the airline industry fights with its customer base and when major carriers battle with their most productive and lucrative distribution channels, there is cause for concern. Rapacious corporate greed, the strangling of the airline distribution system, and the abandonment of customer service will only serve to embolden new competitors and kill the established legacy, network carriers.

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Charlie Leocha

Charlie Leocha is the founder of Travelers United, a Washington, DC, advocacy group. He also serves on the DOT Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection.

  • mbods2002

    This is the only airline I fly with.

  • backprop

    Are you implying that the ULCCs are taking business from the legacy carriers because they offer a better product?

  • Pocahontas

    Part of the issue for me: Southwest has put a cage around the underside of the aisle seats so you can’t get a very large carryon under the seat in front. Also, the “Evolve” seats have higher backs. As a 5’5″ woman I don’t find the space provided particularly generous, so I wind up with claustrophobia attacks if I don’t sit on the aisle. Long story short: is getting a lot more of my business.

  • MF

    Although the ‘free marketeers’ will hate me saying so, this race to the bottom is in reality a competitive death spiral, and actually a bit of old fashioned regulation may actually be good for the industry, as well as pax.

  • AJPeabody

    What would happen if there arose an airline that had nice seats with generous spacing but otherwise followed the unfriendly ultra low price carrier model?

  • Charlie Leocha

    I’m doing my homework. Just flew on Southwest from Manchester, NH, to Midway to Houston and returned Houston to BWI and then to NH. Only yesterday flew on BA from London to Hamburg, Germany, in one of the most uncomfortable seats imaginable. And there were four AA flights in-between the Southwest and BA flights.
    Based on my experience, Southwest has the others beat as far as consistency of service goes and consistency of pitch goes.
    I have not flown with the new Evolve seats.

  • Noah Kimmel

    So, this is a marketing fluff piece on Southwest that completely ignores the fact that their seat reconfiguration reduced seat pitch….

    I like Southwest, but this fanboy article shames other carriers for doing exactly what southwest did while ignoring their actions.

  • cscasi

    I didn’t realize Air France has had route authority to fly from Orlando to Cincinnati. That would be like American Airlines having authority to station one of its planes in Paris and then pick up fare paying passengers there and fly them to Nice or another French airport.. That is because of Cabotage. The overall purpose of Cabotage rules are to prohibit foreign aircraft from one country traveling into another country and picking up foreign nationals or citizens of the other foreign country and providing transportation to and between points within that foreign country.

  • cscasi

    If the airline with nice seats and generous spacing but otherwise followed the unfriendly ultra low price carrier model could make a profit doing so (after fuel, maintenance, monthly lease payments, personnel, admin and other expenses) it would undoubtedly be a real hit if it flew the route(s) people needed.

  • Noah Kimmel

    they are doing it for the shareholders who clamor for more profit (whoose biggest holders are a lot of pension and retirement funds) and because customers keep buying seats on UA on orbitz to save $1 rather than going direct to JetBlue, Southwest, or Virgin America. So if the goal is to lower price as much as possible to win people, while raising profits, costs have to come down. That only really happens by packing more people onto a plane.

    Vote with your wallet!

  • Noah Kimmel

    sounds more like you bought an air france ticket for a Delta plane. If you would rather have AF and their labor strikes every month, go have fun.

    and btw, there are only a few seat manufacturers and less than two dozen different coach seats in the market. Don’t let the color of the leather fool you….

  • Noah Kimmel

    you mean like the ancillary of “Big Front Seat” on Southwest? Or is it the “stretch” product of Frontier?

  • tomg63

    Totally agree. Southwest’s seat pitch is no different than UA, AA and DL.

  • tomg63

    There is an airline like that. It is called JetBlue (although their seat pitch is slowly regressing to the mean).

  • BMG4ME

    This is great. Stop flying Delta so that people like me, who love Delta much more than Southwest, will get the best seats. OK it’s true I am a Medallion customer, but for frequent travelers Delta offers far more than Southwest does. Also you can pay for better seats on Delta even if you aren’t Medallion. In some cases your seat will still be cheaper than on Southwest for some routes. I also don’t find the flight attendants on Delta to be worse than on SW. Also with Delta I get to choose my seat in advance. With SW it’s a race, and even if you pay for a better seat, if there are already people on the plane that money has bought you nothing.

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