Airlines Squeezing Even More Seats Onto Smaller Planes

Passengers on a aeroplane
Jack Sullivan/Alamy

When it comes to air travel these days, you can have easy access to the flights you want. You can have cheap tickets. Or you can have elbow room.

Pick two.

If you want tickets available when you want them, and you also want a comfortable flight when going there, you'll likely have to pay an arm and a leg for the elbow room. Airlines, in the meantime, are gambling that what you -- and most of your fellow travelers -- really want is access to air travel on the cheap, and please keep your elbows to yourselves.

Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported on a trend towards "incredible shrinking plane seats" aboard large, long-haul airplanes. Airlines were asking plane builders Boeing (BA) and Airbus (EADSY) to cram rows of 10 economy-class seats into cabins originally designed for nine. The new seats, just 17 inches wide, and with two-inch armrests, will bracket aisles of similar 17-inch width aboard Boeing 777 airliners, for example.

As the Journal explained at the time, the new 17-inch seat width would be 2 inches more cramped than your average football stadium seat, 3½ inches smaller than a coach seat on Amtrak, 4 inches less than what your compatriots in first class on that 777 get, and 8 inches narrower than the veritable thrones installed in movie theaters.

Now, the phenomenon is spreading to smaller jets as well.

Small Planes, Smaller Seats

According to the Journal, Boeing and Airbus are trying to stuff extra seating onto their A320 and 737 model single-aisle planes. They've enlisted airplane interiors designer B/E Aerospace (BEAV) in the effort. Last year, B/E announced that Boeing and Airbus are ordering a new airplane bathroom designed to reduce floor space to leave more room for seats.

Airbus, which currently can fit 180 passengers onto one of its A320s, wants to shoehorn in 189 seats. This will probably result in about 5 percent less elbow room for passengers.

Boeing -- whose 737 Max 8 regional jets already hold 189 passengers -- wants to add more seats to other models. Ireland's Ryanair Holdings (RYAAY), ordered 175 Boeing 737-800 jets last year, at $16 billion (at list price). Ryanair wants its planes to carry as many as 199 passengers, and Boeing is redesigning doors and scrunching rows to find room for 10 more seats -- again, at a cost of perhaps 5 percent less elbow room for passengers.

The biggest loss of territory, however, may await flyers on Airbus's A321 jetliners. Currently designed to accommodate 220 passengers, Airbus is working at customer behest to redesign the planes' interiors to accommodate as many as 240 passengers -- an 8 percent reduction in personal space.

Will passengers stand for the reductions? That remains to be seen. But if plane seats get much smaller, standing may be the only option left to us.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith is old enough to remember when it was still fun to fly. He has no position in any stocks mentioned, nor does The Motley Fool. For fresh stock picks, try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.