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Are Coach Seats Getting Worse? You Bet!

Larger bodies in smaller seats: That's an airline's formula for profits and a traveler's formula for misery. An anthropometric study back in 2001 concluded that typical economy seats were already an inch or two too narrow to accommodate American men, and in the dozen intervening years, men have gotten larger and plane seats have shrunk. Yes, economy travel is miserable, and things are likely to keep getting worse—not better—for the foreseeable future.

The recent announcement that Russian airline Transaero was installing 652 seats in its new A380 superjumbos (the highest seating capacity of any commercial passenger jet) seems to have kicked off another round of hand-wringing in the media about shrinking seats. But 652-seat A380s aren't the real problem: The real squeeze is coming from airlines you're actually likely to fly, right here at home.

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First, to the A380. Yes, other airlines have installed only 470 to 520 seats on their A380s, but that doesn't mean Transaero is planning a cattle car. The big international airlines that operate the plane emphasize opulent business class and super-luxury first-class suites that occupy a lot more space than economy seats. On Emirates, for example, the entire upper deck is outfitted for business and first class, with 90 seats in a space that would fit up to 300 conventional economy seats.

Transaero is getting the space it needs by installing small 12-seat first class and very-small 24-seat business cabins. With 420 or so economy seats on the lower deck—the same as on Lufthansa—and those small premium cabins on the upper deck, the carrier will have more than enough room to accommodate 200 or so economy seats up top. All in all, those 616 economy seats will have the same spacing as on British Airways, Lufthansa, and Qantas. The biggest problem with that many seats is the congestion and long lines for boarding and exiting. Airbus says that the real economy version of the 380 will seat up to 800 passengers, which will require a real squeeze to 11 seats per lower-level row instead of the current 10.

The real crunch is coming piecemeal, not in some one big implosion.

Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest, and United, among others, are all adding a row or two of coach seats to their already-crowded rear A320 and 737 cabins by squeezing the legroom another inch or so. Even JetBlue, the long-time legroom leader, is taking some of its new planes with reduced legroom, although it will remain a better option than its competitors. The airlines bleat that the new "slimline" seats have thinner backs, so you'll hardly notice the difference. The operative word here, of course, is "hardly." That translates to: "Sure, it will be worse, but only a little worse." Great.

Most airlines taking delivery of new 777s have opted for 10-across economy seating rather than the original nine-across, and most airlines buying 787s are installing equally tight nine-across instead of the eight-across initially envisioned. The result is that—even on those very long-haul planes—you'll be in 737-size seats. You can look for the few nine-across 777 operators to refit with 10-across during the next big overhaul. The airlines hope that newer, fancier in-flight entertainment will take your mind off of how miserable you are. Good luck with that.

The takeaway form this is simple: As long as the traveling public values low fares over comfort, airlines will continue to squeeze as many seats as possible into each cabin. If you want some relief within the U.S. and Canada, fly JetBlue or Porter or opt for the extra-legroom options on American, Delta, Frontier, United, or WestJet; overseas, try to get a good deal in premium economy.

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