Looking for a better airline seat? There’s a site for that

If you fly, chances are you have a story to tell about an uncomfortable airline seat.

Vicki Morwitz does. Hers involves a long-haul plane trip, a minuscule economy-class enclosure and a circuitous routing that deposited her at her destination feeling exhausted and irritated.

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So when a friend invited her to test a new online booking site that evaluates airline seats for their comfort, she had to try it. “I care about fares,” says Morwitz, a business professor who lives in New York. “But I also care a lot about the travel experience.”

That site, Routehappy, officially launched last week with a lofty promise of showing you the best possible flight based on price, seat comfort and schedule. If it succeeds, it could change the way people fly.

“Consumers care about experience, even if they don’t acknowledge it,” says Robert Albert, Routehappy’s founder and chief executive. “In spite of being so publicly blase about taking commercial flights, passengers pay attention to the experience they receive.”

Albert cites a recent survey by the travel consultancy Hudson Crossing, which suggests that a majority of passengers make purchasing decisions based in part on amenities and customer service. Even the type of aircraft can sway them, with 58 percent of travelers saying that it influences their decision to book a ticket.

But passengers aren’t the only ones who have been blase. For years, airlines enthusiastically embraced the idea that in economy class, a seat is a seat. Indeed, within the last generation, most seats in the back of the plane shrank to a standard 17½-inch width with 31 inches of “pitch,” or space between seats. For the average American adult, that effectively turned a transcontinental flight into a grueling ordeal and made a long-haul international flight almost unbearable.

It wasn’t until the airline industry stumbled upon the idea that it could charge more for certain economy-class seats that it slowly began to turn away from a concept that has been called “commoditization.” When airlines could extract more money for, say, an exit row seat, which is required by Federal Aviation Administration regulation to have more legroom, or to reserve an aisle seat, the concept that all airline seats are created equal started to unravel.

The transition isn’t complete, according to Hudson Crossing analyst Henry Harteveldt. It’s plainly obvious that some seats are better than others, but he says airlines need to “wake up” to that reality. “Airlines need to come clean and be honest with their travelers,” he adds. “They need to say: We want everyone to have a good experience. But some seats are better than others.”

Morwitz already knew that when she signed in to Routehappy to book a recent flight from New York to Istanbul. But the nonstop flight offered by her preferred carrier had been discontinued, and in order to stay with the airline and collect miles, she would have to connect through Amsterdam or Paris, which she didn’t want to do. Both connections required long stopovers, and the fares were expensive.

Routehappy suggested an alternate route with more comfortable seats, via Moscow on Aeroflot. It also ranked the flight based on seat comfort, in-flight entertainment systems, available wireless Internet connection and aircraft type, assigning the routing a score from 1 to 10.

“I remember all the old horror stories about Aeroflot, so it was a very happy surprise when I read some very nice reviews about the airline,” Morwitz says. “I decided to give it a try and had a very pleasant flight experience — one I definitely would not have taken if not for Routehappy.”

Routehappy may debunk a few persistent and unhelpful myths about air travel. The first is an oft-repeated mantra among airlines that air travelers care only about price when considering ticket purchases. It’s a “truth” that has made air travel a miserable experience for most economy-class passengers, as air carriers used it to justify moving seats closer together and adding new surcharges to their ticket prices. Passengers, they claimed, asked them to do it by insisting that a low price trumped everything.

“While I agree that everyone cares about price, oftentimes consumers are comparing 10 or more options at the same price,” says Albert. “Why wouldn’t you choose an extra inch or two of legroom, streaming television or WiFi over a cramped seat with no amenities?”

A related myth: Generally speaking, passengers are so cheap that they wouldn’t pay more for a comfortable seat. During Routehappy’s usability testing, the company noticed that certain amenities — most notably, a roomier seat — enticed air travelers to pay extra for their tickets.

That doesn’t surprise Harteveldt, the airline analyst. “If all people cared about was price,” he says, “then Spirit would be the largest airline in the world. And people would only fly if they got the cheapest ticket.”

But a company such as Routehappy could threaten the very status quo of modern flying. The detailed information on seat comfort and amenities, previously hidden from the traveling public, could undermine the highly profitable loyalty programs, driving customers to book the best ticket for them rather than one that helps them accumulate the most frequent-flier miles.

“I think Routehappy can help change the airline industry,” says Morwitz, an expert on consumer behavior and marketing and a happy Aeroflot customer. “Ultimately, this can be better for the airlines themselves, as they can differentiate themselves instead of being viewed as interchangeable commodities.”

Happiness, by the numbers

Routehappy scores 30 million nonstop flights from 748 airlines, assigning each a Happiness Score from 1 to 10. It also includes thousands of user-generated reviews with seat photos. Some of its findings:

Widest seat: 36 inches in Cathay Pacific’s fully flat first-class pods on the 747-400 or 777-300ER

Narrowest seat: 16.5 inches on Air Asia Airbus A-330

Smallest seat pitch: 27 inches on Cape Air Cessna

Highest pitch: 92 inches on American Airlines’ First Class Cabin on the 777-200

Happiest Route and Cabin: 9.62, Emirates Flight 323 from Seoul to Dubai on the Airbus A380

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