What do airline CEOs say about sitting in those cramped middle coach seats?

Sep 30, 2018

By Scott McCartney

Have you ever been vacuum-packed into a shrunken coach seat wishing the airline CEO had to endure the same discomfort?

Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian

We did that for you, sort of. I recently asked the chief executives of the big three U.S. airlines to plop down in the back of one of their airplanes and explain why they think the skimpy confines of coach today are acceptable.

Two agreed. Delta CEO Ed Bastian, 6-foot-3, arranged for an interview on his company’s most recently reconfigured Boeing 777-200 in Atlanta. American CEO Doug Parker, also 6-foot-3, snuggled into a coach seat on a reconfigured 777-200 in a Dallas-Fort Worth airport hangar.

One refused: United’s Oscar Munoz declined to be interviewed in a coach seat. Asked why, United declined to comment.

Messrs. Bastian and Parker fit, although knees were kissing distance from the seat in front. Neither had to contend with a middle-seat neighbor to rub shoulders and sides or a passenger reclining in front of them.

Neither apologizes for packing in more, skinnier seats. Their message: If you want more space, buy it.

U.S. airlines in recent years have improved on many fronts, from reducing lost baggage to consistently earning profits. The biggest backslide, at least from the reader emails I receive constantly, is standard coach accommodations.

Legroom in standard coach on American, Delta and United is less than what you routinely get on Southwest and JetBlue .

More bodies in the same space agitate and aggravate the flying public. Many travelers believe airlines made coach unpleasant to force them to buy extra room they used to get automatically.

“Management should be ashamed of themselves,” says John Wydeven, an electrical engineer from the Appleton, Wis., area. A 13½-hour Delta flight in coach from Detroit to Seoul left him with his knees knocking the seat in front once he put some items in the seat pocket. He found more space in coach on Korean Air and Singapore Airlines flights on the same trip.

Frustrated passenger advocates have unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to force a federal standard on airlines and tried to argue that tighter rows are a safety hazard in an evacuation. Evacuation experts at the FAA and independent researchers say struggling out of a tighter seat just means you won’t wait as long in the aisle to evacuate. The limiting factor is the exit doors.

With so much attention focused on sardine seating, here’s what two airline chiefs have to say in their own defense:

Do You Fly Coach?

Both CEOs say they fly standard coach a lot, though not for the nine-hour stretches that many find painful.

American Airline CEO Doug Parker

Mr. Bastian says he flies coach on most of his domestic trips because he thinks it’s good practice. Customers and employees are impressed when they see him there, and he wants to experience flights like more customers do.

This month he imposed a policy that all Delta director-level employees and above must ride in coach on trips under three hours.

Mr. Parker says he’s in coach roughly one out of every three flights, typically when first class and extra-legroom seats are already booked. Asked how he’d feel on a five-hour flight with the passenger in front reclining into him, Mr. Parker briefly flashed a road warrior’s instinctive nod.

“I feel what our customers experience,” he says. “Without a doubt, this is, by design, less space than you have in cabins for our customers who desire a different product.”

Will Seats Get Smaller?

Both CEOs pledged that they won’t go any tighter.

Mr. Bastian says Delta has settled on a standard seat pitch of 31 inches. (Seat pitch, the length from one spot on a seat to the same spot on the seat in front, is the industry measurement for the space of one row.) Delta does have some 30-inch rows on its Airbus A320s and A319s, a relic of years when the airline wasn’t making as much money. “We’re not making those decisions any longer,” Mr. Bastian says.

Article continues below graphic.

But the number of seats in a row also makes a difference. The Delta 777 economy seat Mr. Bastian settled into is actually 1 inch wider than American’s, because American has gone to 10 seats across each coach row of the 777, while Delta has remained at nine.

Mr. Bastian promised that Delta would stick with nine-abreast in its 777s. It’s part of the airline’s overall strategy to be more reliable and even comfier than rivals. “We believe we get more revenue by having a better product,” he says.

Mr. Bastian’s particular seat had 1 more inch of legroom than Mr. Parker’s, too. Delta’s 777-200s have some rows temporarily set at 32 inches of seat pitch instead of the airline’s standard 31 inches. That inch will disappear when more extra-legroom coach seating arrives, leaving standard coach all at 31 inches.

United’s standard seating on 777s is similar to American’s—seats that are 17 inches wide with 10 to a row. Rows have 31 inches of space, including the seats. United A319s, A320s and some 737s have 30-inch rows.

American is bringing in new planes with even skinnier seats set in 30-inch rows. That’s as low as American will go, Mr. Parker says.

He argues American pushed rows together only when they had skinnier seats “that allow the customer space to remain the same while adding another row of seats that allows us to take care of more customers.”

American hasn’t “done anything that makes the main cabin product less desirable than it was before,” he insists. If customers complain enough about tight seating space, American would change. He says that hasn’t happened.

Mr. Parker did get complaints from his own flight attendants about some aspects of American’s new Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplanes, which have gone up to 172 seats from 160, and 148 before that. Shrunken seats and shriveled bathrooms allow the addition of two extra rows.

So far, American’s customer survey scores on seat comfort on the 737 MAX 8 are a bit higher, but basically in line with existing 737s, Mr. Parker says. The plane has lots of other enhancements over existing 737s, including speedy satellite Wi-Fi and huge overhead bins. Customer satisfaction scores similar to existing planes might suggest that those benefits are canceled out by tighter seating at 30 inches a row.

American initially ordered the planes with three rows at 29 inches, but backed off when word leaked. Squeezing basic coach “is not something we will continue to push,” he says.

What Else Should Fliers Expect?

American’s strategy now is to offer passengers more seating choices—a strategy seen clearly from Mr. Parker’s seat in the back of the reconfigured 777.

Those interested in low fares sit in the back, where American has 146 basic coach seats. If you’re willing to pay more or have elite status, 66 coach seats provide extra legroom. You can pay several hundred dollars more and move up to premium economy: 24 seats that are 19 inches wide instead of 17 and have 38 inches row to row. Then there are 37 lie-flat business-class seats. Nearly half of the plane’s 273 seats offer extra room.

“The customers that really value additional space have a lot more options on us,” Mr. Parker says.

Like American, Delta is focused on customers willing to pay up for more space, and offering a standard coach seat. It’s rolling out premium economy on international flights. It’s also betting that people will spend more for service and reliability. “Our strategy has been for some time to differentiate ourselves by showing the market we’re not a commodity,” Mr. Bastian says.

Credit: The Wall Street Journal, www.wsj.com

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