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Will New Airplane Seats Improve the Coach Experience?

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Move over Skyrider, there’s a brand new airline seat making waves in the industry. The seat, unveiled by Lufthansa this month, is so ultra-thin that it creates space for more seats to be added. Peter talks with the Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney about the new seats and what they mean to consumers. 

Peter Greenberg: They’re crowding more seats into couch on certain airlines, but are passengers liking it, Scott?

Scott McCartney: Yeah, I was shocked and actually experienced it myself to make sure. There’s a new ultra-slim seat made out of a mesh material. It’s kind of like a fancy Aeron office chair. It’s actually quite comfortable. They’ve done other things like move the magazine pouch to the top of the seat to give you more knee room. The bottom line is the seat takes up about four inches less space than the seat it replaced. The airline took two of those inches to add two more rows of seats and squish them closer together. But the passengers actually get an inch and a half more space. I was traveling with people who compared it to United’s Economy Plus or JetBlue’s extra rows, but it’s actually a 38 inch seat pitch, which is akin to Ryanair. It’s not something you want for long-haul flying, but it’s fine for shorter trips.

PG: Addressing passenger comfort has not always been an airline priority, especially in the back of the bus.

SM: It definitely has not been an airline priority except, as you say, in business class, first class and international flights. I think we’re now getting around to improvements in coach seating. But it’s slow. It’s a hard investment for airlines to make. They’re slow to refurbish their fleets—certainly slow to invest in economy. And these new seats just take years to get through the pipeline. I was up at Boeing looking at the new 787, and you know they locked in their seating design choices several years ago. So, it’s even difficult to get the newest seats into a brand new airplane. But, I think these new materials really do hold promise to provide something better. The traditional airline seat of foam cushioning they take such a beating that after six months. This mesh material may be a big step up.

PG: Well, the other thing about these new design seats is what they do. We grew up with a seat that physically slide back. I mean, the back kind of went down; it reclined. The new seats, they’re designed so that the seats themselves don’t move back, but the actual seat reclines within the seat and slides forward.

SM: Yeah, the bottom pivots so then when you recline you’re just reclining within your own space as opposed to taking up the space of the guy behind you.

PG: Well you know what, necessity being the mother of invention I’d much rather take one of those than be sitting in a Ryanair seat any day of the week. I’ve done it trust me. I have done it. I lived to tell about it, but it’s still … I think I was the poster child for deep vein thrombosis by the time I got off that plane.

SM: Qantas said something interesting. They leave a couple rows that don’t recline, and they reserve them for their business travelers. And I think there’s a great divide here between business travelers and leisure travelers in terms of seat reclining. People get very upset; there are fights on airplanes. Somebody says you came into my personal space and the other guy says seats are made to recline, and I’m entitled to recline the seat.

PG: I don’t know about you, Scott, but I haven’t been on an airplane in the last three years where every seat wasn’t full. I think at this point we’re just happy to get on a plane.

SM: Yeah, I think that’s right, and I think with more capacity, it’s going to get more and more crowded. This holiday season in particular, and we’ve said this for the last couple of years, and it keeps getting worse. If people are inclined to travel with the economic situation as it is, it may be tough for them as things get tighter.

By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com

Photo Credit Airbusky via Flickr Creative Commons

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