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.

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.

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