New Seat Design on Southwest and British Airways: Is Less More?

Southwest Airlines and British Airways announced new and improved economy class seats, featuring better ergonomic design and lighter weight:

  • Southwest will install new-design seats in all of its 737-700s, starting in March. The line will add six seats to each plane, gaining the needed space by cutting the pitch (front-to-rear spacing of seat rows) on all seats from the current 32 inches down to 31 inches. But, claims Southwest, the new seat designs will actually give passengers just as much “personal space” as the old ones. And the new seatbacks will recline only two inches rather than three, decreasing the intrusion into the space of travelers in the row behind when the seat is at maximum recline. Southwest says it will use the same seats in its new 737-800s but will retain the previously standard 32-inch pitch. And it hasn’t decided what to do on its obsolescent first-generation 737s, which it will presumably phase out in a few years as it takes delivery on the more efficient new models.
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  • British Airways (BA) will refit 18 of its 777-200s with the same new-design seats it uses on its six newer 777-300ERs. It will retain its standard—very tight—31-inch pitch. And, fortunately, BA will not follow some of its big competitors by switching to ultra-narrow 10-across seats. As with Southwest, BA touts the new seats as offering more personal space than the old ones, as well as an improved inflight entertainment system. BA is also upgrading premium economy cabins in those same planes.

Tighter pitch but more room? Airlines have been feeding us that line ever since they started to shrink economy pitch from the early standard of 36 inches to the current average of 31 inches. Overall, that assertion hasn’t been true: Today’s economy is noticeably worse than it was a few decades ago. Still, it is true that seat design—and especially thickness of seat backs—does affect personal space.

The industry clearly needs to develop a more accurate measure, along with a better measure of seat width. At this point, however, there are no official national or international standards for seat space measurements, so we’re stuck with measures we know aren’t accurate—along with ongoing assertions of "more room with less pitch."

Do you think you'll feel the squeeze of the new seats or are you holding out hope they will seem roomier?

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