I Don’t Know if Southwest’s New Seat is a Good Thing Or Not

Southwest had what it called an “especially amazing” announcement this week. The big news? The airline is introducing a new seat on its aircraft. Now the question is… is this going to be good? I have no idea.

All we know is that Southwest has decided its uncomfortable Evolve seats aren’t good enough (something the rest of us decided about 5 minutes after first sitting in them), so it’s going to roll out a new seat which was developed by B/E Aerospace. The new seat looks like this:

Southwest New Seat

Looks like a seat, right? In fact, it’s a slimline seat a lot like many others out there. B/E does make a good slimline seat, but this is a new seat and of course Southwest will customize it. That’s why I can’t tell you if this is good or bad. It may look fine, but the single most important thing about an economy seat is whether or not it’s comfortable. And that I won’t know until it’s actually on an airplane… more than a year from now.

There are a few things that we can take away from the announcement, some good and some bad.

The Good

  • File this under good-ish. Southwest claims these are the widest economy seats on a 737. Uh, great, but most people don’t know or care what kind of airplane they’re on and A320s can (and do) easily accommodate wider seats. But still, these are .6 inches wider than most other 737 seats so I guess that’s a plus. But guess where that extra width comes from? At least some of it comes from the narrowing of the armrests. I think seat width is probably more important than armrest width, in general, but again we’ll have to see how this feels. A tiny, flimsy armrest might be really annoying.
  • Seat pitch will be 32 inches, which is better than most airlines (save JetBlue, which is at 33 inches) are offering with slimline seats.
  • The seatback pocket is moving from being at your knees to the top of the seat. With 32 inches of pitch, that means there will be good legroom and you won’t feel claustrophobic at your head.
  • The seat will have adjustable headrests. I’ve never actually found a helpful or comfortable adjustable headrest in coach, but maybe this will be the one. Or maybe not, but it’s not a bad thing to have.
  • The biggest win here? It is NOT that horrid Evolve seat. But that leads us into the bad list.

The Bad

  • This may not be the Evolve seat, but it’s only going on newly-delivered aircraft. Those hundreds of 737s that already have the torture chamber on them today? They aren’t getting new seats.
  • No power ports will be in these seats. Seriously? I mean, not even a USB port. That’s a big mistake.
  • These won’t be installed on the first airplane until over a year from now.

Looking at all these pros and cons is great, but is it comfortable? That’s really what matters when it comes to an economy seat, and we just don’t know. We’ll have to revisit this next year sometime.

[Seat photo via Southwest Airlines]

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30 Responses to I Don’t Know if Southwest’s New Seat is a Good Thing Or Not

  1. IO says:

    thanks for bringing the topic.

    They look like space seats to me. I noticed that the seatback pocket, in addition to being at the top as you point out, appears to leave less space for head cushion.

    I think i could have save them the consultant’s fees and suggested a bench, and i would even add power ports :-).

  2. KB says:

    The comment section on the post about the new seats on swalife (Southwest’s intranet) has been extremely active and the lack of USB power is the overwhelming topic of discussion among employees posting. Someone did respond saying things have not been finalized though and that issue is still being looked at. Hopefully this will be corrected. On the other hand, firsthand accounts from people at HDQ who have had a chance to sit in the demonstrator seats on display there have been overwhelmingly positive.

  3. Lee Baker says:

    As a tall person, I find adjustable headrests to be almost critical on some airlines’ seats. A few places I have flow recently, I have found the sides of the headrest that are intended to keep your head centered (while you’re asleep?) actually are about shoulder height. This tends to push my shoulders forward so I end up in a kind of slumped posture, leading to uncomfortable back pain. (Lion Air in Indonesia is probably the worst I’ve found yet).

    I’ve found seats where you can raise the headrest to be much more comfortable, and do my best to choose flights where I know those are available.

  4. The lack of at least USB power is not a small deal for me.

  5. David SF eastbay says:

    Since no airline does anything for coach passengers unless it saves them money, can we assume this is either because it will save WN money or since only new planes will get those seats and WN is now venturing more into international markets, those new planes and seats will go into international service where more comfortable seats could make a difference on which airline people fly?

    • Andy says:

      I think you’ll find that Southwest cares a bit more about coach passengers than the other guys.

  6. Grichard says:

    Anybody have any idea how much including USB power with new seats would cost the airline?

  7. Rob says:

    Power is quickly becoming an expectation, even for short flights. Not including power is very short sighted of Southwest.

  8. Joel says:

    From this post, it seems as though WN is still focused on monetizing their in-flight entertainment over offering power ports/outlets. I get the economics, but doesn’t this seem a bit counterproductive?

    • Nathan says:

      Southwest’s IFE requires passengers to bring their own device to watch the wifi offerings. Without power, many people won’t purchase the IFE if they know their device won’t last the entire flight.

      While power on the airplane is nice, newer devices should be able to last all day without the need for a recharge. Perhaps the power on plane issue will become less relevant in the near future.

  9. Bill says:

    “…these are 6 inches wider…”

    I believe they’re .6 inches wider, not 6. The figure I saw yesterday was 0.7 inches.

    • JayB says:

      Yes, I saw the 0.7″ increase in width, too.

      If the seats really are 6 or 7 inches wider…wow, this is big news!

      • CF says:

        Whoops. I put the decimal point in there. It is apparently .7 inches wider than Southwest’s seats, but I believe it’s .6 inches wider than what most airlines have today.

  10. James S says:

    Really surprised by this move. In-seat power is practically table stakes for domestic US flights anymore. Do you need power for a flight from Love Field to Hobby? Probably not. But Southwest has made it clear for years that those flights are a smaller and smaller piece of their overall picture. When you’re flying from Chicago to Phoenix, or from Baltimore to Denver, passengers are rapidly being conditioned to expect in-seat power, and Southwest isn’t providing it. Moreover, Southwest is constantly trying to position itself as a business-friendly airline. Business travelers need power and connectivity more than just about any other group.

    The Evolve seat was a massive swing and miss by Southwest. Within just a few months even Gary Kelly was admitting in press conferences that it simply wasn’t comfortable. It’s hard enough to hear that the Evolve seats are staying on the current fleet, but to learn there won’t be power either is really a head-scratcher.

  11. Jim China says:

    To me, the main issue is “to recline or not to recline”. Please, non-recline: one less inter-personal hassle. The article is incomplete in this regard.

  12. JohnG says:

    One could also argue that the seat as a whole isn’t really wider if they simply made one part of the seat, the cushion, wider while making another part of the seat, the armrest, narrower. May help folks who simply can’t squeeze between the armrests, but doesn’t improve comfort when the issue you have is that you’d like to be an inch (or two!) further away from the arms/elbows/shoulders of the passenger next to you. On a related note, all hail the AA Super 80 and its delightful power port equipped 18 inch wide seats!

    • This seems like a stupid marketing ploy by Southwest. When I heard they were making the seats winder, I wondered: HOW? I thought maybe they had worked with Boeing to make the sidewalls narrower or something, but IMHO this isn’t a wider seat. I define that as the measurement from the a point of the armrest to the same point of the next armrest.

      IMHO its the same width and Southwest is engaged in false advertising. It may “feel wider” but it isn’t “wider”.

  13. MeanMeosh says:

    Given the slow-as-molasses speed at which Southwest tends to operate, I have to wonder if the limited roll-out is just their way of testing how passengers respond to the new seat before rolling it out further. If that’s the case, they really need to rethink their strategy on that one. Those Devolve seats are so bad, there’s really no good reason for keeping them.

    Regarding the power ports, I thought I remember reading somewhere (might have been here, but can’t remember) that WN’s management had been asked about power ports before, and their response was they have no plans to install them, period. I agree with James S that if Southwest is serious about targeting business travelers, they need to offer power.

  14. ssmith3104 says:

    As usual, readers of “Cranky Flier” have collectively nailed this:
    * S/W’s unwillingness to provide power is a serious misjudgement (dealbreaker for many).
    * Providing an adjustable headrest is a giant improvement (very necessary for some of us).
    * Exchanging an extra 0.6 inches of seat width for a fraction less armrest is a good move.
    (I still will give preference however to flying in A320 or 757 with genuinely wider seats)

    Companies like Southwest could get these items of valuable information years earlier and without
    notable errors like the existing seats, or proposing new ones without power, if they just LISTENED
    to their customers!

  15. mc says:

    the problem is that you have pencil pushers deciding what is good for the traveling public…..they need to fly around some and see what it really is like…..how many seat versions are flying around now….4 that i know of….what i find interesting is that every time an airline unveils something new, it’s a huge hit with the passengers, everyone just love’s it…..Southwest’s half seat as i call it was a bomb, American’s new color scheme is a huge bomb (i haven’t heard anything good about it) but yet they are all called huge successes….if they are such huge successes, why change it….Americans nasty scheme is here to stay but the once every so popular Southwest seat is out….sadly, nothing will change…when the new seats are put into revenue service, the passengers will just love it, as always (marketing propaganda) for what will be another flop….

  16. Nave says:

    I agree with the minority of posters stating that USB power is less of an issue than many believe. With the rapid improvements in battery life, the necessity of providing onboard power will likely progressively lessen. For example my MacBook Air lasts days without a charge. Even with heavy use it will last 8-12 hours. These seats won’t be fully deployed for many years, and I suspect battery life will become a non-issue by the time the seats become ubiquitous in the fleet. Granted, Southwest’s stage length has gone up over the years but they still fly much shorter flights on average than the legacies. Given the expense of installation and weight penalty there is a great case to be made for not having in-seat power.

    I only wish the 73G fleet was being retrofitted with the seats (assuming they won’t be worse than Evolve). Even on my regular short hops DAL-HOU and back the Evolve seats suck.

    • CF says:

      Nave – People have been saying battery life won’t be an issue for years and years. Batteries have gotten much better, but devices now require a lot more power. But the biggest issue is that people can’t always show up with a full battery for their flight. Maybe you just worked a full day and rushed to the airport. I think power will always be an issue.

      • Nave says:

        Predicting the future of technology is hard… but looks like Southwest may be siding with my hypothesis (or maybe just cheaping out, who knows). We’ll see who’s right in 5-10 years!

        • CF says:

          Nave – Ha, yeah. I’m putting my money on Southwest just cheaping out.

          • JuliaZ says:

            They are cheaping out, but this is why I carry a 20,000 mWh battery that has the capability of charging two devices at up to 3.4 Amps each at a time… my seat neighbors often thank me because I have so much juice that I can spare some. :-) That big battery pack weighs about as much as a paperback book in a smaller-than-that form factor, and given that pre-Kindle, I always carried a paperback to read, it doesn’t seem like a hassle. Anyway, I am usually on AS, which has an a/c outlet and USB charging on the new Recaro seats. I find those seats quite comfortable. SW hasn’t impressed me with their value for money or comfort ever, though the FAs are friendly and I give them points for that.

  17. jonathan reed says:

    Increase in seat width by decreasing arm rest width does nothing for the fact that if 3 large to medium men sit on a 3 seat bench, their shoulder widths far exceed seat width.

  18. 1qaz says:

    These seats will be around for a decade or two. And NO POWER? YGBKM. Look ahead, please sir.
    You’ll be sorry when EVERY other airline seat has power – and SWA is 10 years more before they provide it…..REALLY? INNOVATIVE? CUSTOMER FRIENDLY? No…doesn’t sound like it….

  19. I find that as long as you are flying in coach, there will be discomfort no matter what airline you fly. At least this may be a step in the right direction. However, I do wish that they would add the USB port. I personally would prefer seats that do not recline because it always seems to me that the person in front of you practically has their head in your face when they recline. The trend has been to reduce your space in order for the airlines to pack in more seats and make more money. Maybe this is the beginning of a new trend.

  20. If the seats are comfortable then that is a plus but me being a frequent flier I know how important it is to have a power port nearby so I can tell you that will be their biggest mistake!

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