Have plane seats shrunk? Of course they have - what a ludicrous question. Just take a look at the happy folk on board any passenger aircraft during the so-called "golden age" of flying. What luxury. There's so much legroom they don't know what to do with themselves.
So how much space have we lost?
Exact specifications for older aircraft are hard to come by. Only after passengers started feeling the squeeze did publications start keeping track of legroom and seat width. But economy class "pitch" on these early jet airliners - the distance between two rows of seats - generally ranged from 34 to 36 inches.
The Boeing 707, for example, which entered service in 1958 and is widely credited with ushering in the "Jet Age", offered 34 inches. So too did the first 747s, operated by the likes of Pan Am and TWA.
Aboard a Qantas Boeing 707 V-Jet in 1965 Photo: Qantas Heritage Collection
This started to change in the Eighties. In 1981, the New York Times reported that manufacturers were, for the first time, starting to cut seat pitch in economy from the "industry standard" of between 34 and 35 inches to just 32. A McDonnell Douglas executive tried to justify the changes. "With newer, less bulky seats, you might get as much legroom with the 32 inches pitch as you would with the 34 inches," he claimed.
So began the ongoing trend for increasing profits by squeezing in as many passengers as physically possible.
The Consumers Union, a US watchdog, began keeping tabs on seat pitch in 1985. Its records clearly demonstrate how America's four biggest airlines (American, Delta, United and Southwest) have cut legroom over the last three decades. In 1985, Southwest offered as much as 35 inches, while United's upper limit in economy was 36. None of the four went below 31.
Fast forward to 2018 and none of the four go above 33, while three (American, Delta and United) go as low as 30.
In 1990, The Telegraph compared seat pitch on a handful of major airlines, including BA and Virgin. For long-haul flights, Lufthansa, Qantas and Virgin all offered 34 inches in economy, while BA offered between 31 and 34, depending on the aircraft. Now only Qantas offers more than 31 inches (its Boeing 787s offer 32), while Virgin goes as low as 29.
How low do they go?
Economy seats on an A330
Just how tight can seat pitch get? The 29 inches found on Virgin Atlantic's A330s is pretty rare for a long-haul airline. In January the consumer magazine Which? examined more than 30 carriers and only found two that offer less than 30 inches on long-haul flights: Virgin and Thomas Cook Airlines. The website SeatGuru reveals a few more, such as China Southern, WOWair (Iceland), Lion Air (Indonesia) and Vanilla Air (Japan).
For short-haul flights it is another matter. Dozens now offer as little as 29 inches, including BA, Vueling, EasyJet, Jet2.com, Norwegian and Aurigny, while some have taken things even further and dropped to 28.
Members of the 28 club, which offer the stingiest legroom in the sky, include the following:
- Thomas Cook Airlines
- TAP Portugal
- Tui Airways
- Spirit Airlines (US)
- Spring Airlines (China)
- Thai Airways
- Frontier Airlines (US)
- Iberia (Spain)
- LATAM Brasil
Boeing concedes that seat pitch has been reduced (by three inches, on average, for long-haul flights, it says). But it added: "Today's seat pitch and seat design with composite materials provide similar, if not improved, comfort from the bulky metallic structure and foam-dense designs used in the past. In general, the new seat designs and materials provide two to three inches of 'equivalent pitch' over older seat designs."
Stingy: Spirit Airlines Photo: Alamy
The 27-inch seat pitch
No airline has dared to offer less than 28 inches. But this terrifying prospect is quite possible. Airline interiors manufacturer Zodiac Aerospace is just one firm to have pitched concept cabins with 27 inches of pitch, something it says is possible thanks to ultra slimline seats. No airlines have have taken the bait - yet.
The issue of width
Economy class passengers have lost up to eight inches of legroom since the so-called golden age of flying. But manufacturers will regularly suggest that it is seat width, not pitch, that really matters when it comes to comfort.
A spokesman for Boeing claimed that "single-aisle airplane seat widths have remained constant for over 60 years. They are the same width since the 707 opened up the world for economy class passengers".
Research, however, suggests otherwise. In 1985, according to the Consumers Union, none of America's big four airlines offered less than 19 inches of width. Now, 17 inches is the norm, and United goes as low as 16.
If 29 inches is the threshold for seat pitch, then 17 inches appears to be marker for width. The following airlines are member of the sub-17 club, offering the worst seat widths in travel.
- Air Transat (Canada)
- Nok Air (Thailand)
- Turkish Airlines
How many abreast?
Narrower seats mean there's room for more. British Airways recently faced criticism over plans to install a new 10-abreast configuration on some of its 777s. But it was only following in the wake of most other airlines. United, Cathay Pacific, EVA Air, Emirates, Air France and Qatar are doing likewise.
On the 787, eight-abreast was popular at first, but now nine is universally seen as the magic number.
And we could soon see the first 11-abreast aircraft. A number of airlines, including Air France, have supposedly flirted with the idea, first put forward by Airbus back in 2015, of purchasing an A380 with 11 seats in each row. That's a 3-5-3 configuration. If you thought the middle, middle seat would be bad, take a look at the window seat.
Boeing might point to slimline seats and "composite materials", but even if comfort is not compromised by cutting seat pitch, cramming more people onto the same plane certainly makes it feel more crowded.
Take the 707. It was 44 meters long with a cabin width of 3.56m, and it carried 174 passengers in a single class configuration. That's 0.9 square metres per passenger. The new 737 MAX8, however, is 39.5 metres long, 3.54 metres wide and carries 200 fliers. That's 0.7 square metres each. It's an imperfect calculation (it refers to the length of the plane rather than the length of the cabin), but it illustrates the problem.
What's more, planes today fly at much closer to capacity than they did in the past. In 2017 the average passenger load factor, for all airlines around the world, was 81.4 per cent, in 2011 it was 78.1 per cent, and in 2005 it was 75.1 per cent, and before 2000, around 70 per cent was the norm.
SilkAir's Boeing 737 Max 8
Seats are shrinking, they are being squeezed closer together, and airlines are packing more of us into the same space. So what's the solution?
You could lessen the nightmare by opting for an airline that offers more. Ryanair, remarkably, trumps many short-haul rivals when it comes to legroom, offering 30 inches. Seatguru's comprehensive website lists the best and worst performers for both short-haul and long-haul flights.
You could also fork out for premium economy. Ask when you check in at the airport and upgrades are often available for a relatively small sum.
Or why not treat yourself to airport lounge access, then you can at least put your feet up for an hour before having your knees crushed for three.
The Telegraph, London
See also: How to score the best seat on a plane
See also: Why I love flying in economy class