No, this isn't yet another examination of the Knee Defender, nor another rumination on the Right to Recline vs. the Right to Defend Against Recliners.
But in the hot debate over defending knees during the last month, I've noticed few have asked just why reclining seats are suddenly causing so much trouble aloft. Simply put, has legroom—and knee room—decreased in recent years? Have seats gotten smaller back in economy class where most of us fly? Have cabins gotten fuller?
The unequivocal answers are yes, yes and yes. And you'll have to deal with what appear to be irreversible trends.
Digging into the archives
In recent years I've sent many readers to the site SeatGuru.com, which provides a wealth of information for air travelers about in-flight seating and entertainment options offered by airlines worldwide. But long before the Internet, Consumer Reportsconducted in-depth examinations of airline seat size and comfort, carrier by carrier and aircraft by aircraft, starting way back in 1985. I was the editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter when we completed the final analysis in 2002 (with painstaking research conducted by Linda Burbank, USA TODAY's Traveler's Aide).
I dug out my old copies of CRTL to determine if it's myth that airline seats seem to have gotten smaller lately. I focused on the last four remaining "major" carriers in the United States, as defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation: American (AA), Delta (DL), United (UA) and Southwest (WN). Then I compared CRTL's findings to the latest data provided by SeatGuru for short-haul and long-haul coach/economy classes, eliminating extra-cost premium economy products.
What I found was quite surprising.
Pitch—or the distance in inches from a given point on one seat to the same point on the seat in the next row—has indeed changed dramatically in economy class at the nation's four largest carriers over the last 30 years.
As indicated, all of the Big Three—American, Delta and United—now offer at least some aircraft with a seat pitch of only 30 inches in economy. In years past, 31 or 32 inches were the absolute minimums. What's more, the roomiest pitch offered by the Big Three and Southwest (31-33 inches) are now tighter than they were at all four carriers in recent years, by anywhere from 2 to 5 inches. The only good news is some U.S. airlines are worse: Spirit offers pitch of just 28 inches on some aircraft, though the silver lining is those seats don't recline.
One contributing factor to this trend has been the dramatic outsourcing of the Big Three's "mainline" flights to regional carriers flying smaller aircraft. A government study recently found 61% of all advertised flights for American, Delta, United and US Airways (now merging with American) were operated by regionals in 2011, up from 40% in 2000.
Some airlines maintain design advances—such as slimline seats—only give the illusion of tighter quarters on paper even though pitch has indeed been reduced. But industry claims that passengers don't notice this have been refuted.
Seat width has changed as well, and not for the better.
Simply put, the roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation's four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s. The worst seats today measure either 17 or 17.2 inches, when about 19 was as tight as it got through the 1990s. In fact, even the widest seats for sale in economy today—from 17 to 18.5 inches —would not have been offered several years ago. For comparison, up in the front of the cabin, premium class seating on the Big Three usually measures 21 inches.
The big squeeze has become a global problem. Last year the European aircraft maker Airbus suggested all airline seats be at least 18 inches wide, but the U.S. trade organization Airlines for America rejected the suggestion, stating, "We believe individual airlines should be able to determine fleet configurations that best meet their customers' needs, as they do today."
Meanwhile, demographics are moving in the wrong direction. In 2002, CRTL quoted a British ergonomics firm that provided data on human hip sizes worldwide. The result? Yep, the United States ranked first (20.6 inches), ahead of Germany (19.6), Britain (19.1), France (17.2), Japan (15.9) and China (15.6). It seems safe to say such averages have only increased over the last dozen years.
As I've stated before, I believe the U.S. airline industry's conscious decision to dramatically increase load factors since the 1990s has been the single biggest contributor to passenger dissatisfaction with flying. Domestic cabins are fuller than at any time since airlines were troop carriers during World War II, and the misery index keeps rising.
Among U.S. airlines, loads averaged in the 50s and 60s for most of the 20th century, and didn't break the 70% mark until the 1990s. But as this chart indicates, with the exception of slight reversals after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the Great Recession in 2008, loads on U.S. airlines have been soaring to new heights for 20 years now—with no leveling off in sight. The latest monthly report from the DOT shows U.S. carriers posted a load factor of 86.4% for June; such a high average, of course, means many flights are at 100%.
Fuller flights mean more than just rubbing shoulders and elbows with strangers. As I noted here last year with "Overloaded! Crowded airline cabins reach new heights," there are far-reaching negative effects to these record loads, including boarding headaches, overhead bin shortages and increases in involuntary bumping.
Higher load factors also mean there are fewer empty seats, which directly affects your comfort. Consider a Boeing 737 with 144 seats, in a standard 3x3 configuration of 24 rows of six seats. A load factor of 80% means only 29 of 48 middle seats are unoccupied, and 90% means only 14 middles are empty.
The configuration of the aircraft is critical, because empty seats affect neighboring passengers on both sides. Thankfully, on wide-body aircraft with nine-across seating, the traditional 2x5x2 configuration has largely given way to a 3x3x3 model. A veteran Boeing engineer calculated this means "millions more passengers have been seated next to an empty seat." Years ago this same engineer told CRTL that an adjacent empty seat equals another 4.25 inches in width, roughly equivalent to an upgrade to business or first in some cases.
What can you do?
As the Knee Defender uproar made clear, tempers rise as cabins become tighter. In response, one airline official adopted a "let-them-eat-cake" pose and publicly suggested unhappy passengers should pay more to sit up front. Of course, that's not an option for many of us.
Consider the following when looking for more room:
• An upgrade may not be possible, but "extra legroom" seats are available on many carriers now for much less than sitting in business or first.
• Premium economy options can work for many budgets as well.
• Confirm your seat assignment as soon as you can, even though some airlines may make this difficult, as I noted in 2012 with "Are airlines withholding seats so you'll pay a premium?"
• As many travelers know, seats in door rows, emergency exit rows and bulkhead rows offer additional legroom, and the hassles of a recliner in front are eliminated.
• On wide-body aircraft, which often operate long-haul flights, experts suggest you select an "inside aisle" seat, since middle seats in the middle section often are assigned last.
• On airlines with open seating policies, paying extra to board early could be money well spent.
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.