Sooner than you think, you might board a flight to find that the seats are hexagonal, have no arm rests and are arranged in groups where some seats face backward. Or you may take your seat on a saddle with back support. “A lot of what we find normal today was considered unrealistic 20 years ago,” says Björn Maul, a partner with the consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Or, as a Hamburg aviation expert Heinrich Grossbongardt puts it: “Seats are one of the last screws on the plane which the airlines can still twist to squeeze something more to their coffers.”
Airlines are under enormous pressure to compress ever more discount-minded passengers into jet cabins without making them feel too crowded. Since the global financial crisis in 2008, companies prefer booking employees in economy instead of business class, says Christoph Brützel, professor of air traffic management at the International University of Bad Honnef. The number of business passengers in the front of airliners has halved since 2004 on flights within Europe or the USA, according to the Association of German Corporate Travel Agencies (VDR). So to keep making profits, airlines have to squeeze their passengers, and that requires new seats.
Onboard space is now a luxury item and a status symbol for which passengers must pay. A lot.
Take an Airbus 380, which Lufthansa flies to Johannesburg, Beijing or New York. Its list price is about $436 million, said Mark Hiller, the CEO and co-owner of Recaro, one of the three major airline seat manufacturers. Passengers aboard the aircraft are packed into 550 square meters, less than the penalty box on a football pitch. That makes the purchase price nearly $800,000 per square meter. “The cabin in an airplane is among the most expensive properties in the world,” said Mr. Hiller.
More than 400 Recaro designers in a large factory on the outskirts of Schwäbisch Hall in south-western Germany are judging every millimeter and every gram in an airline seat against the laws of economics and physics, since the average passenger is getting heavier.
In order to earn as much money as possible from their valuable space, the airlines demand three things from seat suppliers like Recaro. First, they want lighter seats to save fuel. Every kilo less cuts operating costs by five cents per flight hour. Second, they want narrower seats so that more passengers can be accommodated. In an Airbus A320, Lufthansa installed 144 seats 20 years ago; now it is 186. Third, they want customers not to notice how jammed and crammed they are.
One of Recaro’s answers is the CL3710, a seat for economy passengers on long-haul flights installed by 30 airlines including Air China, Qantas and TAP. Transferring a weight-supporting strut from the backrest to under the seat helped add two centimeters of leg room while limiting how far seat backs could lean into the space of the passenger behind them.
Other tricks have to do with psychology. Increasing the amount of blue light, for example, makes small spaces seem larger and makes tired passengers less grumpy as they put up with neighboring passengers, said Ingo Wuggetzer, who is responsible for marketing flight cabins at aircraft manufacturer Airbus.
Research has also found that seat width, not leg room, is more important to passengers, Mr. Wuggetzer said. Why? “Because the widest part of a person is the shoulder. And because people find it particularly unpleasant to touch the shoulder of a stranger with their shoulders,” he said. In addition, you can easily sit diagonally on a wide seat for extra legroom.
But beyond all the tricks, onboard space is now a luxury item and a status symbol for which passengers must pay. A lot. Lufthansa lists 17 prices for different seating areas. For example, seats in the emergency-exit rows have 15 centimeters more legroom. Depending on the duration of the flight, they cost between €25 and €100 extra. But for that, at least you can do yoga with your toes.