Flying Coach Is the New Hell: How Airlines Engineer You Out of Room

The rears of planes are becoming hell with smaller, harder seats to jam as many passengers in as possible. Meanwhile, first class has never been more opulent.

11.25.14 11:15 PM ET

Some 24.6 million people (equal to the whole population of Australia) will be heading down the aisle toward a seat on an American airline during this Thanksgiving holiday. That’s an average 31,000 a day more than last year—including international and domestic flights—as Americans wing their way home from far and not so far. Depending on whether they turn left or right at the door, they’re going to find increasingly different levels of service, from a hearty, personal welcome to a dismissive instruction to get seated ASAP.

Imagine you are checking into a hotel. Before you reach reception, you are intercepted. You present your reservation and, according to what it indicates, you will be directed in one of two directions—turn left for new levels of absolute luxury, turn right for the meanest of budget hotel rooms. All under the same roof— but a place containing extremes of comfort and discomfort.

Change the location from a hotel lobby to an airport check-in desk and this crazy scenario becomes all too familiar. When we fly, we have become hardened into accepting extremes of inequality in services and comfort that would be outrageous in a hotel. And it’s going to get worse.

Two things are happening simultaneously to the design of airliners: The technology they embrace is leaping ahead—and the space in coach class is being re-engineered to make it as tight as it can legally be, while the amenities up front are reaching a level of opulence that would once have been unimaginable.

The new generation of airliners may not look very different than the old—they all have the same basic form: wings raked back sharply from the fuselage, engines hung in pods under the wings. But they are being built with new, lighter materials and powered with far more efficient engines. These advances bring striking reductions in fuel consumption—up to 25 percent less—which, in turn, deliver lower operating costs to the airlines.

Airline bean counters love the fuel economy, but they love even more how the engineers are advancing the art of sardine-can density in coach. This is having the effect of creating a new business model for budget carriers, pioneered in the U.S. by Southwest—those flying single-aisle, one-class airplanes.

Think of it as an airborne version of the Walmart principle: Stack ‘em high and sell ‘em low. In this case, it’s pack ‘em in more and sell ‘em low.

The no-frills airlines predominantly use two airplanes, either various versions of the Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320. New versions of each of these airplanes arriving in the next few years will push seat capacity to the limits of their design—in the case of the 737, 220 seats and in the case of a longer version of the Airbus, the A321, as many as 240 seats. Astonishingly, that means that for the first time, a single-aisle airliner will have as many seats as a much larger twin-aisle airplane like the Boeing 767 with a three-class cabin.

When these single-aisle models were introduced, the maximum seating averaged around 160 seats. Many airlines flew them with fewer seats and more legroom, as Jet Blue does, with 150 seats in its A320s—at least, until 2016. That was key to the Jet Blue brand, since it was launched in 1999, offering as standard a generosity of space that other airlines charged extra for as premium economy.

However, Jet Blue CEO Dave Barger came under increasing pressure from Wall Street to abandon the business model that had given the airline its distinct identity and, in a tough business, its steady growth. Last year, Jet Blue made a profit of $168 million, $40 million more than the previous year.

The Masters of the Universe don’t fly coach, though. They wanted Jet Blue to squeeze more passengers into the cabin. Jet Blue has just announced that from 2016 there will be 15 more seats in its cabins, together with a new tiered ticket price structure that will include, for the first time, charging for checked bags on the cheapest tickets. This leaves Southwest, a serious competitor, as the only domestic carrier left able to claim “bags fly free.”

As the length of a narrow-body cabin extends (the A321’s cabin is 113 feet long) it creates a claustrophobic perspective, inflicting on passengers what might be called cabin tunnel syndrome. To counter this, interior designers make brave attempts of trompe l’oeil, for example by integrating overhead luggage bins with an arcing curve of the ceiling, a look pioneered on the twin-aisle Boeing 787 Dreamliner, but on a single-aisle tube the effect is more optical than physical.

The “stretched” cabins in new 737s and A320s transform their economics. Michael O’Leary, the hard-charging and notoriously tin-eared boss of the pioneering Irish budget carrier Ryanair, has ordered 200 new model 737s and has said that the extra seating will add $1 million in revenue per year for each airplane.

For passengers, beyond the statistics lies a puzzle that has persisted for years. Why is it that through decades of technological advancement the design of the part of the airplane that makes the most intimate contact with people, the coach seat, has remained locked in the past?

Upholstery does not in itself create comfort. Traditional coach seats gave the illusion of comfortable padding but were angular, not reflecting body shapes. The critical measure is not the size of the seat but the space allotted to each seat and the space between seat rows, called pitch. It’s a slippery term applied to the distance between one seat back and the next. The bulkier the seat, the more of the space it swallowed within the designated pitch, leaving less for your actual body.

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If the pitch remains the same but the seat becomes slimmer, the result should be more body room, right? If only. The newest coach seats drop the upholstery and, instead, are shells molded to the human spine. In theory, they save weight and add legroom. In practice, though, the carriers use the space gained by slimming the seats for jamming in extra rows of seats and decreasing the pitch—Jet Blue’s seat pitch will, for example, fall from 34 to 33 inches.

This kind of density isn’t limited to single-aisle airplanes flown by budget carriers. For example, the Boeing 787 Dreamliners flown between Japan and the U.S. by All Nippon Airways, an airplane that in other respects has the benefits of advances in the quality of cabin air and lighting, have a 30-inch pitch in coach with hard shell seats that do not recline… for flights that can last longer than 12 hours. In the same cabin, the business class has flat beds with a 70-inch pitch.

Then there is the other critical dimension, width. The narrowest seats in coach are generally 17 inches wide, although some airlines have pared that to 16.7 inches—all this at a time when the world’s bums are getting broader, not slimmer. How many of us have not winced at the approach of the bulging bum about to ram itself into the seat next to us, with meaty limbs instantly overlaying both arm rests?

Even in the world’s largest airplane, the Airbus A380, there will be no escaping the plan for tighter, meaner seats. Emirates, which operates the largest super-jumbo fleet, has asked Airbus to re-engineer coach class on the main deck of its A380s to accommodate an extra seat in each row, taking the count up to 11 seats from 10. (Tip: The narrower upper deck in coach is the better choice because its eight-seat rows cannot be extended.) On these same airplanes, first-class passengers get lavish “private suites” with an armchair that converts into a bed, plus a wardrobe, a desk and a 23-inch TV and access to inflight showers, while business-class passengers get generous flat beds and other luxury amenities.

Another Gulf airline, Etihad, is aiming even higher. Its new suites on the A380 in a section called The Residence have three rooms: sitting room, dining room and bedroom and they come with a butler, chef, and shower. (Breakfast is served by the butler.) Depending on the length of the flight, these suites can cost as much as $43,000 for two people.

Airlines argue that the extremes in comfort to be found in one airplane represent a bargain struck to make airline travel available to all. The people paying megabucks for first- and business-class pampering subsidize those in coach to pay a fraction of the fares charged up front. So what if you can barely twitch a toe let alone move a leg? You will arrive at exactly the same time as those who turned left at the door instead of right.

OK, that might be endurable if the fare is really cheap, if it’s a relatively short flight, as on most budget carriers, and you are young enough to still have forgiving spine. But on an A380 or 787 Dreamliner flying long haul, you can be trapped, rigid, in that seat for half a day.

The human body was not intended to take that kind of punishment. Homo sapiens is designed to be a standing creature; when we stand, the pelvis is aligned with the spine and forms a natural S curve. In an airline seat, the hips and pelvis rotate forward and the S curve flattens. This creates pain in the lumbar region. Trying to ameliorate this, most people try to slouch—but there is not much hope of slouching in a 17-inch wide seat with your knees up against the seat in front.

Airline chiefs point out that this is a business where it is notoriously difficult to make money. The world’s airlines have annual revenues of around $750 billion, but the average profit, measured as earnings before interest and taxes, is a meager 2.4 percent (Apple’s is 33 percent). Indeed, older legacy airlines with international routes, and in markets made far more competitive by low-cost carriers, find it hard to make any profits at all.

And the business model for budget airlines is also tough. They have to fill every seat—in most cases the profit comes in only the final three rows of seats. But if the airline has scale that can bring huge returns: Ryanair, with a fleet of more than 400 airplanes, is on course to make a profit of around $835 million this year.

But there is something else going on here. It seems to me that we are dealing with more than bottom-line economics and bottom-squeezing ergonomics. The airlines have indoctrinated us to accept a “steerage complex.” We are being conditioned to believe that in exchange for a bargain, we just have no right to expect comfort in return. It’s hard to think of a better example of the law of diminished expectations in action—a law that posits the idea that once an expectation is diminished it will never recover.

The airlines have come to believe, as a matter of doctrine, that they would be giving away too much if they made us really comfortable. Cheap tickets get cheap seats. That’s the deal.

Looking through photographs from the early days of U.S. airlines, I found a shot of the cabin of the Boeing 247, circa 1934. The 247 was the first airplane really to define the form of a modern airliner, flying faster and higher than any predecessor. The passengers in the photo are enjoying a standard of comfort undreamed of in coach today: only one seat on each side of the aisle, generous leg room, nice wide seat cushions, and seat backs shaped to reflect the curves of the human body. Some of the ladies are wearing furs and hats. Even a 200-pounder could sink contentedly into the space without encroaching on anyone else.

In 1934, those passengers paid $160 for a one-way flight from Newark to San Francisco, in today’s money $2,800. This was at the depths of the Great Depression. In its infancy, air travel was a luxury only the wealthy could afford as they flew nonchalantly over the states where the likes of Ma and Pa Joad were fleeing the Dust Bowl. At the front end of the cabin it remains so. Airplanes have become as segregated by class as the old ocean liners—opulence for the rich and the crush of steerage for the rest of us.