Cramming More Seats on Airplanes? That’s Not Always Bad

There has been a lot of buzz around the word “densification” in the airline industry. Usually, when the finance and revenue teams hear the word, which means to squeeze additional seats in the same tube, they start drooling. More seats equal lower unit costs and higher revenue potential, right? But when inflight crew and customers hear it they usually cringe. The reality is that this isn’t always just about reducing personal space; there are a lot of tricks involved in the process. Sometimes, as is the case with JetBlue’s upcoming A320 retrofit, airlines can add seats to existing cabins and do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the experience for the traveler. Other times, it downright sucks.

To see some of the tricks airlines use to add more seats to the same aircraft, I thought I’d take two examples. Domestically, Delta decided to add 10 seats to its A320s, going from 150 to 160 total seats. It actually went TOO far (didn’t think that was possible, eh?) and reversed course by removing 3 seats. Then there’s American which took its old 777-200s from a mere 247 seats to 289 and seems happy with the decision. Here’s how they did it.

Delta’s A320s had a fairly standard 150 seats on them before the change, though admittedly there had already been some tinkering to the layout when they added legroom to three rows so they could become Comfort+ seating. Coach had seat pitch (the distance between one point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front) of 31 to 32 inches.

When Delta’s team started looking at the airplane, they realized a couple of things. First, they wanted more First Class seating on that airplane and second, they had more galley space than they needed since the days of hot meals for all were long gone. In the end, they came up with a layout that would add 10 seats, but it wasn’t distributed evenly.

In front of the exits (a good marker since those can’t be moved), the new configuration actually resulted in 2 fewer seats than before. That extra row in First Class replaced a row of coach (with a few inches being snagged from elsewhere to get the extra legroom needed for that seat). But behind the exits, that’s where things got tight.

Using slimmer seats, Delta was able to reduce seat pitch an inch or so, in theory without reducing comfort but I’ll let someone who has flown the new A320 be the judge of that.

At the same time, Delta decimated the galley in the back. It used to be that the back wall of the aircraft was the galley. The black rectangles right in front of that were bathrooms. Delta took the new super-tiny-awful lavatories and squeezed them into the back corner of the airplane, cutting the galley in half. Being able to get rid of the lavs further forward made room for another row. And that’s how the airline added 10 seats to the airplane while also adding an extra row of First Class.

This, however, is one of the rare instances where an airline admitted it went too far. The galley was unusable and flight attendants struggled to work the airplane. To fix it, the left side of the back row has been (or is being) removed to make room for more galley space. The awful lavs remain, but the flight attendants have more room to work.

Now let’s take a look at a widebody, and the one with the most dramatic conversion. I don’t think anyone would argue that the old American 777-200 configuration was incredibly generous, and not always in a good way.

This airplane had a gigantic (and mediocre) premium cabin but there wasn’t a Main Cabin Extra section. The proportions were just all wrong.

The first thing American did was ditch the First Class cabin. Those 16 seats were helpful compared to the sub-par business class on the airplane, but with a new flat bed in Business, they became far less important. They weren’t going to earn their keep.

So American went from having 16 First Class seats and 37 angled flat torture beds to a single cabin of 37 fully flat beds. The airline was able to reduce some galley space in the process, so the new premium cabin took up a lot less space than the old one.

With the rest of the old premium cabin space, American was able to create a true Main Cabin Extra section. Back in coach, the physical space remained just about the same, with some minor galley changes. Further, seat pitch didn’t really change either. So how did American get so many more seats back there?

Coach used to be 2-5-2 across on that airplane. American followed the current trend to squeeze in 3-4-3 across, an extra seat in each row.

So now, there are fewer premium cabin travelers, but they’re in a much better seat. Those who can’t sit up front now have a shot at more legroom in Main Cabin Extra, which is good. But those in the back get the squeeze, at least from a width perspective.

In theory, this better matches the product with what people are willing to pay, and that means those who pay little get less than before. But even if the personal space isn’t impacted all that much, there are still a lot more people crammed in a tube who are fighting over the now-tiny lavatories. That impacts everyone (ok, well, everyone in coach).

At some point, the airlines will hit a wall and they won’t be able to go any further. I keep waiting for that to happen, but people continue to fill those airplanes with profitable fares. When that stops, then the airlines will have to stop. But until then, you’re not going to see the airlines change the way they do things. Just remember, it’s not always bad. (But sometimes, it certainly is.)

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35 Responses to Cramming More Seats on Airplanes? That’s Not Always Bad

  1. Matt says:

    Very interesting analysis. Brett, how does the increase of 42 extra passengers and maybe 1 or 2 more flight attendants (to service them) affect the evacuation time in case of emergencies. Aren’t there minimum exit times to meet to get certification? Thanks and keep up the great work.

    • Aircraft manufacturers certify airplanes for a maximum number of passengers at which they can meet the 90 second evacuation time to get certification. Airlines can’t put more seats on the airplane than it is certified for.

    • CF says:

      Mdim – As Nick mentioned, there are rules about how many seats you can have on an airplane. Now, I just hope that we don’t run into an accident where people can’t get out in time because of this. But there are certification processes required.

      • Leslie in Oregon says:

        Yes there are, Cranky, but have you looked at the criticisms that passenger safety advocates have voiced about the current certification processes?

  2. grichard says:

    Sure wish they’d put a real premium economy section in. I’m almost always willing to pay for that, and it steers me to foreign flag carriers as a result.

  3. A says:

    On the AA widebody I’d be far, and I mean FAR, more inclined to fly it had Main Cabin Extra kept the old 9 across configuration. Going 10 across but adding some legroom is a wash…absolutely no gain at all and I’m a taller 6′-2″ guy. I continue to boycott any 777 with 10 across seating. Would much rather be on an A330 once airlines start doing that.

    As for Delta did the A319’s get a similar reconfig? I recently was on a refreshed 319 and didn’t think it was too bad. I’m a big fan of the new seats that recline forward. Doesn’t work well for me at my height but it also keeps the person in front of me from crushing my knees. Honestly my biggest complaint about more seats is that it makes turning the plane so much slower as the bin space cannot be increased and there are more bags to stow.

    • CF says:

      A – Yes, the A319s were also redone, but I don’t think they have the flex to add quite as much.

    • Leslie in Oregon says:

      Cranky, you did not specify just how much narrower the width of American’s new 777 economy seats are. However, having experienced a 10-seat-across configuration on a 777, I agree completely with A: it is extremely uncomfortable for adults of average American size. After one long-haul experience with that configuration, I too have boycotted any 777 with 10-across seating.

    • ExNWExKLM says:

      I am boycotting too. After only one flight in a 777 with 10 across I even changed the airline. And yes, I would buy premium economy, the problem is…that is also 10 abreast.

  4. Sam says:

    I make a point of avoiding 10 across wide-bodies if I can. Just got off a transatlantic AA 777 and was tempted to ask for a 50% refund, considering the large (but not unusually massive) person next to me occupied all of his seat + half of mine for the whole 8 hour flight.

    Same goes for cross-country A320s. Had a bad experience on a SFO-DTW Delta A320 recently too with very long bathroom lines and slow cabin service. Plane clearly wasn’t designed for the medium-longish haul missions airlines are starting to use them for.

    Just so I don’t come off as a total crank, God bless the 767. Never more than 8 across and plenty of lav & galley space. Probably why they’re disappearing so fast :(

    • Wild Bill says:

      Like Sam I was on a DL 320 and towards the end of the flight there were 14 people waiting to use the “mini-lav”. I thought that God forbid there was an emergency. People could not get past others. An engineering train-wreck (no pun intended). I now know to look at the equipment before I make a reservation. I learned my lesson.

      And I have read this comment in previous CF posts but stick these numbers people into a seat in the back for a 5 hour flight. Make them do it for a week. Then get them to a chiropractor.

    • Chris says:

      Well, no way to make them improve if you just compalin to yourself. You might not get the refund you aim for, but should get at least some tokens and if many more people do it, … things might start changing for the better !…

    • David M says:

      8 across on a 767 is rare, mostly it’s European charter airlines that do it. Looks like it means a 17″ wide seat, same as the 10 across 777. Normal 767 configuration is 7 across and 18″ seats.

      Personally, I like the A330. 8 across at 18″ seats, and going 9 across on them is very rare. AirAsiaX does it, and the seats are 16.5″ wide! It seems like Boeing’s recent wide bodies (777 and 787) are being designed for comfort, but they’re just wide enough that even major airlines thing they can get away with squeezing in an extra seat per row. Haven’t seen that happen with the A330/A340/A350 yet, though there was that sillyness with the 11 across A380 a couple years ago.

  5. So what is JetBlue doing?

    • CF says:

      Nick – JetBlue is adding a couple rows to the A320s. Seat pitch drops from 34 in the back to 33, but it is using slimmer seats. The thing is, JetBlue already has these installed on all of its A321s, and the A321s constantly get better customer satisfaction ratings (or at least, that was true last I heard). So it’s definitely an improvement.

  6. Gary Leff says:

    American’s 772 retrofit started with a 260 seat configuration [as planned by LAA management].
    There was always going to be a little densification. So some planes went to 260 seats with 45 business class new lie flat “Concept D” seats, 45 main cabin extra, 170 coach.

    Then LUS management in spring 2014 came up with a new denser plan for the aircraft — 289 seats with 37 business, 48 main cabin extra, 204 coach.

    Then of course Zodiac had tremendous problems delivering American’s business seats, the airline terminated the contract and sued, and started putting in B/E Aerospace Super Diamond business seats in.

    If memory serves American has (13) 772s with 260 seats [45 Concept D business class], (6) 772s with 289 seats and 37 Concept D business class, and (24) 772s with 289 seats and 37 Super Diamond business class. And (4) 772s are awaiting completion of their conversion away from the old angled business seats and introduction of main cabin extra/an extra seat in each row of economy. But I haven’t checked this in several weeks.

    In any case a 289 seat configuration wasn’t strictly speaking necessary to add lie flat seating or main cabin extra.

    • CF says:

      Gary – That count is correct. But now it’s changing again with the introduction of premium economy. It never ends.

  7. Tim Dunn says:

    It is perhaps more interesting to note that AA’s reconfigured 777-200s have nearly identical numbers of seats as DL’s 777s – but DL kept and is keeping 9 abreast seating in coach while AA is going to 10 abreast. The difference is that AA has flight attendant crew rest cabins on the main passenger deck while DL has the above-cabin version.

    DL’s 320/M90/321 re-reconfiguration to take out seats is a result of flight attendant feedback about lack of work space while other carriers have had to respond to passenger feedback when they have created seating configurations which are below industry standards.

    Different perspectives and different assets.

  8. kelty says:

    Have tried the new slim pre-reclined seats on both a legacy carrier and an ULCC. They stank on both though cost more on the legacy carrier. I am a slim 5’ 10”, but these new seats just don’t cut it for me. Coach and Basic Coach really discourage flying.

    • Suzie Alcatrez says:

      Driving is much more relaxing these days.

      • Southeastern says:

        With record congestion and 40,000+ roadway deaths last year I’d be interested to hear what relaxing roadway you are traveling on.

        http://fortune.com/2017/02/15/traffic-deadliest-year/

        I’m 6’3 and travel in economy class between the US-Asia on a regular basis, including domestic legs in the U.S. I have no complaints other than slow wi-fi and the increasingly more rare occasion of not having a working power outlet (two things that were hardly ever available just 5 years ago).

        • M. Petro says:

          As someone who has regularly driven over 40,000 miles per year and has also driven all over the USA and Canada for business, I can say that the experience varies quite a bit from place to place. I can’t imagine it’s ever relaxing driving in the Washington, DC area; however driving in most places is usually a pleasant experience (as long as the bridge you’re on doesn’t collapse). I typically drove if the trip was estimated to be about 8 hours or less otherwise I traveled by commercial air and rented a car at my destination.

          What doesn’t vary however; is the fact that in order to minimize the chance for being involved in any type of unpleasant situation anywhere on the road, one must concentrate mainly on driving and particularly, the actions of the many unskilled or just plain reckless people out there with you. Driving safely is a full-time activity with very little room for doing anything else at the same time.

  9. TimH says:

    I wonder how much the 2-5-2 layout was viewed as a negative by travelers in the middle of the row.

    On one hand, it meant that families with kids were likely to want to sit in the middle instead of by the windows, since you couldn’t have two parents and a kid sitting in the same row except in the middle of the plane; on the other hand, I’m not sure that that many families fly, and so if you’re stuck as a solo traveler in the center seat, you were in for a really bad time (asking not one, but two people to move to use the lav is a pain).

  10. I’ll pile on to the comments regarding 10-abreast 777s. Even if I have extra legroom in Economy Plus, the reduced shoulder space is painful. I’d love to see more US carriers do a slightly higher-level premium economy product that would stay 9 abreast when the rest of econ goes to 10-abreast. (Or maybe if could even go down to 8?!)

    @Brett, is their any big reason why AA, DL, or UA don’t want to try this?

    • Tim Dunn says:

      Jack, DL’s 777s are 9 abreast in coach and will stay that way while AA and UA are moving to 10 abreast in standard coach. DL’s A350 are also 9 abreast while their 330s are 8 abreast, both of which produce an ~18 inch wide seat. AA and UA are putting 9 abreast on their 787s (as are most airlines worldwide) which produces a ~ 17 inch seat.

      AA and DL have both introduced premium economy which has wider seats and more legroom

    • CF says:

      Jack – American did it originally but then backed away. I think now with a true premium economy coming onboard, that’s going to be another reason to buy up into that.

  11. I’ve been on the new DL A320 and liked it. I thought the seats were nicer and the plane didn’t look run down and tired. I also thought having the tray table fold up in F was a really tacky look and I’m glad that’s gone. The only oddity is that the air vents are in these tiny unites that stick down from the overhead bins and the light switch is tiny. I didn’t notice anything different about the lav in F though.

  12. 121Pilot says:

    Brett,

    How do we know when it’s gone to far? Is it when you get a lot of outrage over announced change like the AA 737 Max? Or when the buy away to JB over the legacies really gets noticeable?

    If all 3 legacies announced they were going to 29″ in coach and Spirit etc then went to 27 people would likely keep buying tickets. So how do we know?

  13. Seatback says:

    I recently flew F9 between CVG and LGA on a new A320neo. I sat in the very last row and didn’t have a problem with the pitch (I’m 6′). The set up was as you described with the galley cut in half and two lavs against the back wall.

    However, what I do have a problem with is the cushion on the seats…it’s like sitting on a park bench. Why do airlines insist on such hard seats??

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