Christmas is a time to be cheerful. But, in travel industry-speak, it’s also the season of 90 per cent-plus passenger load factors. Just like the shops, it’s the few weeks where the airlines make the profits that make the rest of the year worthwhile (before falling off a cliff in the New Year low season in February and March).
And, if you’re not prepared to pay more to sit up the front, this Christmas promises to be the squeeziest ever. In Australia and overseas, airlines continue to push economy class seats closer and closer together.
Locally, Virgin’s reinvention as a business airline means that it now has an economy section that’s even more cramped than Qantas’s. According to the latest listings on Seatguru.com, its 737-800s have up to 180 seats, compared with Qantas’s 168.
The Virgin forward space per seat row is now as little as 30 inches (76 centimetres) compared with Qantas’s (79 cms).
But that’s at the “full-service” end of the industry. If you want the cheapest tickets, you must travel with Qantas subsidiary Jetstar or Virgin subsidiary Tiger Airways, which now offer standard seating of as little as 28.5 inches (72 centimetres) per seat row.
In fact, the “old” standard economy seat space of 32 inches (81 cms) per seat row – the minimum for which people of average height don’t have their knees jammed into the seat in front – is now non-existent in Australia. People above average height now must pay for space in an exit seat row – if that option is available.
If you were born tall, you don’t generally qualify for the cheapest fares available – and not just in Australia.
I was recently dismayed to learn that my favourite airline in the world, America’s Southwest – has started to collapse its standard seat space from 32 inches to 31 inches (79 cms) to create premium seating rows for which people pay more.
Regular Southwest flyers have also reported the airline has reduced the seat recline from three inches to two (five cms).
“It’s ruined the Southwest flying experience,” 33-year-old sales manager Justin Klein told the Boston Globe after a recent business trip from Nashville to Chicago.
In the old money, Klein is 6-foot-3 (190 cms), which means he is acutely aware how close his knees are to the seat in front of him on a plane. He says, on the Nashville-Chicago flight with Southwest, his knees were jammed in so tightly that he couldn’t stretch out his legs under the seat in front of him.
Southwest Airlines has started adding an extra seat row to its 737-700s, losing an inch of room between seats in the process. Canada’s WestJet is also reducing seat space to make room for a section of higher-fare seats with extra legroom.
Even JetBlue Airways, which has long made generous seat room part of its marketing as the most spacious airline for economy class flyers in the US, announced earlier this year that it had removed an inch of legroom in the rear 11 rows of its Embraer E190 aircraft to accommodate expanded legroom in new, higher-priced rows.
The Globe reports that, not only are the cheap seats closer together, there are fewer of them available as some airlines now charge extra for window and aisle seats. This makes it harder for families to find affordable seats together and makes travellers who have paid more reluctant to switch seats.
“You are getting squeezed in all directions,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst, told the Globe.
Legroom is going the way of checked bags, in-flight meals, and pillows — once-free amenities that now come at a cost. In a fiercely competitive industry, this allows airlines to offer lower base ticket prices, while generating new revenue from those willing to pay additional fees.
Yet many passengers say that more legroom is the improvement they want most — 41 per cent according to a recent survey by TripAdvisor.com. But 71 per cent said they weren’t willing to pay for extra legroom on domestic flights under four hours.
And that’s the rub: comfortable economy seating is now a luxury.
I predict the squeeze won’t end until the airlines face legal cases in which they’re threatened with millions of dollars in payouts for forcing people to sit in an environment that may cause a health hazard, like loss of blood flow to the limbs.
Have you noticed Virgin’s shrinking seat room? What has your experience been overseas? Do you pay extra for an exit row or bulkhead seat? Post a comment below.