Airlines squeeze seats and knees for more profits

Economy-class seats. Slimmer seats on some planes may bring bigger profits for airlines like United. But they will likely mean less comfort for passengers.

Tess Vigeland: United Airlines is about to make some not-so-friendly changes for your knees. The carrier is joining several other rivals by installing slimmer seats on some of its planes in the coming year. Southwest and Alaska already announced similar moves. The carriers have been promoting more room underneath for carry-ons and they say the lighter materials that these seats use will save on fuel costs.

Of course, it also means they can add an extra row of passengers by scrunching everybody in a little tighter. And that's got our 6-foot-4 senior business correspondent Bob Moon imagining what it'll be like the next time he flies.

Mock cabin announcement: Ladies and gentlemen, please place your knees in their upright and locked position.

Bob Moon: OK, so I doubt it'll be quite so official, but industry analysts say we can expect more airlines to try squeezing in even more paying customers. George Hobica is the founder of

George Hobica: It's all about saving fuel and cramming more passengers into each aircraft.

Oh sure, the carriers are claiming the thin seats actually give people more personal space between armrests. But Hobica has tried them and says he misses the days when plane seats were more like La-Z-Boys, and not like church pews.

Hobica: They are less comfortable, there's absolutely no question. They are harder and they have less give. They are closer together. And your only option is to fork over the cash for those premium economy seats at the front of the plane, or use your miles to upgrade to business class or first class.

Or, he says only half jokingly, suffer. And given the option of cheaper seats, most of us will suffer through. So says industry analyst Henry Harteveldt at Atmosphere Research Group.

But isn't this really a safety issue? Harteveldt says not as long as the airline proves it can evacuate the plane within federal time limits.

Henry Harteveldt: Spirit Airlines, which has the smallest amount of leg room of any U.S. airline -- 28 inches -- got that seating approved by the FAA.

Harteveldt says as long as we all keep buying the cheap seats, the carriers will keep giving us what we seem to want.

Harteveldt: Airlines are not in the passenger happiness business. Their job is to move as many people as they can safely, and to make a profit.

So, who knows if we'll ever again hear ads beckoning us to "fly the friendly skies."

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.


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