American Airlines legroom: How much is an inch worth?

American Airlines plans to increase seating on its 737 and MD-80 jets so it can squeeze more money out of them. The planes aren’t getting any bigger, so that means something has to give. Right now, economy passengers are already packed in tight on all airlines, unless they buy upgrades. American isn’t saying how many seats they’ll add or how they’ll do it. For carriers, seating is a high-stakes game of inches where companies have to balance the competing interests of passengers, profits, and crew, not necessarily in that order.

The website SeatGuru obsessively tracks seating quality from a passenger point of view. Its numbers show that the smallest pitch on these short-haul American jets is 31 inches. (Pitch is the industry term for the distance between rows, that ever shrinking zone where you can unfold your legs, if you’re lucky.)

To add more seats, American would have to squeeze rows a couple inches closer. But only a handful of carriers have dared to try going under 30 inches. Those last couple inches are likely the most precious.

“It’s hard to tell what that inch is worth because it’s gonna vary by market, by time of day,” says Addison Schonland of the aviation consultancy IAG.

Even if airlines can’t pinpoint the value of an inch, they’re very cautious about it taking it away. Hard as it may be to believe sometimes, they’re not trying to torture us. New, thinner seats could enable airlines to preserve legroom while adding seats.

“The slimline seats will probably give you about the same amount of legroom,” says aviation consultant Michael Boyd. “Will it be more comfortable? I don’t think so. But it’s not as if they’re turning airplanes into the 7th Avenue subway.”

There are other potential ways to add seats without losing legroom. Now that food service in coach is dwindling, airlines are creating room for seats by ripping out kitchens.

At 6’5”, aviation consultant George Hamlin’s interest in airline seating is both personal and professional. Flying coach is never fun for him, and he cringes at the idea of more seats coming in, thin ones or not. But the reality is there’s little choice anymore.

“Domestic economy has become pretty much a commodity product,” Hamlin sighs.

Essentially, passengers are out of luck if they find American’s new seating arrangements too tight. Other carriers are just as jammed. Unless they pay to upgrade and grab a few more inches, increasingly the only place to find more legroom is by driving instead.

Kai Ryssdal: In its continuing quest to find out exactly how many human beings, it can cram into the back of a long skinny aluminum tube that flies through the air. American Airlines has some new economy-class seating arrrangements in store for the traveling public. More seats in its 737 and MD-80 jets, to be precise.

American's not saying saying how many seats they'll squeeze in, or how they'll do it. Marketplace's Mark Garrison reports from New York on how much that extra knee-room means to the bottom line.


Mark Garrison: For airlines, seating is literally a game of inches, so let’s pull out the tape measure.

That’s 31 inches, the smallest pitch on one of these short-haul American jets. Pitch is the distance between rows, that ever shrinking zone where you can unfold your legs, maybe. To add seats, airlines have to squeeze rows a couple inches closer.

Hear that tape measure shortening? Now we’re under 30 inches, which only a handful of carriers have dared to try. So just how much is an inch worth? Aviation consultant Addison Schonland:

Addison Schonland: It’s hard to tell what that inch is worth because it’s gonna vary by market, by time of day. It’s very hard to come up with a generic number.

Even if airlines can’t pinpoint the cost of an inch, they’re very cautious about it taking it away. It’s hard to believe, but they’re not trying to torture us. Aviation consultant Michael Boyd says new, thinner seats could let airlines have it both ways.

Michael Boyd: The slimline seats will probably give you about the same amount of legroom. Will it be more comfortable? I don’t think so. But it’s not as if they’re turning airplanes into the 7th Avenue subway.

With food service in coach dwindling, airlines are also making room by ripping out kitchens.

Now let’s stretch the tape out to 6 feet, 5 inches, the height of aviation consultant George Hamlin. Flying coach is never fun for him. But there’s not much choice anymore.

George Hamlin: Domestic economy has become pretty much a commodity product.

So, tough luck if you don’t like the tight seat on American. Other carriers are just as jammed. So if you can’t pay to change the tale of the tape, you may just have to drive. In New York, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter for Marketplace and substitute host for the Marketplace Morning Report, based in New York.

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