Pack your can opener! Airlines squeezing in more seats

Short people rejoice! You're at an advantage in the travel universe.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the airlines are falling over themselves in a rush to cram more seats into already-tight cabins.

The race is motivated by the same impulse that has caused them to throw luggage fees at us in the past year: Trying to stay one step ahead of bankruptcy. More seats equals more potential income. There goes your legroom.

For example, American Airlines is taking delivery of some new 737-800s, which up to now have carried 148 passengers. The new planes, though, will carry 160 in the same amount of space.

Even though the space crunch is fueled by profit, the airline will actually have to pay an additional flight attendant to make it happen, since federal law mandates one attendant for every 50 passengers. So how much, exactly, do they really stand to make out of our misery?
In the mid-1990s, carriers like American bragged about their generous "seat pitch" (which is the amount of breathing room your knees have), but they're mum now. There's not much to boast about.

American's benchmark, which is still reflected on its Web site, was 32 inches, while some rows used to have 33 inches. These days, all the major legacy carriers, including American, have reduced their standardized seat pitch to a tight 31 inches.

Where did American find all that extra room? You're gonna love this one: Thinner seats.

Tight quarters are uncomfortable enough on a short domestic flight, but on a long transcontinental one, they're the equivalent of an enhanced interrogation technique. (Sorry, Air France, I know you're going through hard times right now, but on that flight from Paris last week, your papier-thin seats and kneecap-chipping pitch made me toss and turn worse than when I had the flu and a 103-degree fever.)

American claims that the new seats won't be uncomfortable because the bottom part pivots forward slightly when reclining, giving the person behind you a soupcon of additional space, but we all know that's spin. That's now how it will play out in flight, where many passengers don't recline because they're working.

Just because the airlines are getting new planes or refitting old ones doesn't mean in-flight service will improve. The new American jets will have more power outlets for laptop users (the better to sell in-flight Wi-Fi to them, of course), but they'll still have the same old flip-down overhead screens for communal entertainment, a mode I find at least a decade behind the times. They will, however, burn 35% less fuel than an old MD-80, although I wouldn't go looking for a 35% decrease in price on my ticket price as a consequence.

Which airlines have the most generous standardized space now? As so often is true in the topsy-turvy airline industry, the ones with the reputation as the cheapest. JetBlue leads the pack with 34 inches, and it has TVs at each seat. Frontier, Alaska, and Virgin America can claim 33 inches, and Southwest offers 32 or 33 inches.

Even American's bulkhead seats are losing some space. The only place on an airplane where there's still a bit of room is the exit row, and airlines such as JetBlue, Northwest, and AirTran have long since charged customers a little more for the semblance of the human dignity available there.

Qantas, an airline doing so poorly it's parking planes and scrapping more and more premium-class seating, started charging US$125 for the right to sit in one on a long-haul flight.

Because all the airlines are doing this together (anyone else find something fishy about that?), it's impossible to exercise our rights as consumers and patronize an alternate carrier that offers a better product. We can't put our money where our feet are. We can't even scratch our elbows.
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