Cramming More Seats on Airplanes? That’s Not Always Bad

There has been a lot of buzz around the word “densification” in the airline industry. Usually, when the finance and revenue teams hear the word, which means to squeeze additional seats in the same tube, they start drooling. More seats equal lower unit costs and higher revenue potential, right? But when inflight crew and customers hear it they usually cringe. The reality is that this isn’t always just about reducing personal space; there are a lot of tricks involved in the process. Sometimes, as is the case with JetBlue’s upcoming A320 retrofit, airlines can add seats to existing cabins and do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the experience for the traveler. Other times, it downright sucks.

To see some of the tricks airlines use to add more seats to the same aircraft, I thought I’d take two examples. Domestically, Delta decided to add 10 seats to its A320s, going from 150 to 160 total seats. It actually went TOO far (didn’t think that was possible, eh?) and reversed course by removing 3 seats. Then there’s American which took its old 777-200s from a mere 247 seats to 289 and seems happy with the decision. Here’s how they did it.

Delta’s A320s had a fairly standard 150 seats on them before the change, though admittedly there had already been some tinkering to the layout when they added legroom to three rows so they could become Comfort+ seating. Coach had seat pitch (the distance between one point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front) of 31 to 32 inches.

When Delta’s team started looking at the airplane, they realized a couple of things. First, they wanted more First Class seating on that airplane and second, they had more galley space than they needed since the days of hot meals for all were long gone. In the end, they came up with a layout that would add 10 seats, but it wasn’t distributed evenly.

In front of the exits (a good marker since those can’t be moved), the new configuration actually resulted in 2 fewer seats than before. That extra row in First Class replaced a row of coach (with a few inches being snagged from elsewhere to get the extra legroom needed for that seat). But behind the exits, that’s where things got tight.

Using slimmer seats, Delta was able to reduce seat pitch an inch or so, in theory without reducing comfort but I’ll let someone who has flown the new A320 be the judge of that.

At the same time, Delta decimated the galley in the back. It used to be that the back wall of the aircraft was the galley. The black rectangles right in front of that were bathrooms. Delta took the new super-tiny-awful lavatories and squeezed them into the back corner of the airplane, cutting the galley in half. Being able to get rid of the lavs further forward made room for another row. And that’s how the airline added 10 seats to the airplane while also adding an extra row of First Class.

This, however, is one of the rare instances where an airline admitted it went too far. The galley was unusable and flight attendants struggled to work the airplane. To fix it, the left side of the back row has been (or is being) removed to make room for more galley space. The awful lavs remain, but the flight attendants have more room to work.

Now let’s take a look at a widebody, and the one with the most dramatic conversion. I don’t think anyone would argue that the old American 777-200 configuration was incredibly generous, and not always in a good way.

This airplane had a gigantic (and mediocre) premium cabin but there wasn’t a Main Cabin Extra section. The proportions were just all wrong.

The first thing American did was ditch the First Class cabin. Those 16 seats were helpful compared to the sub-par business class on the airplane, but with a new flat bed in Business, they became far less important. They weren’t going to earn their keep.

So American went from having 16 First Class seats and 37 angled flat torture beds to a single cabin of 37 fully flat beds. The airline was able to reduce some galley space in the process, so the new premium cabin took up a lot less space than the old one.

With the rest of the old premium cabin space, American was able to create a true Main Cabin Extra section. Back in coach, the physical space remained just about the same, with some minor galley changes. Further, seat pitch didn’t really change either. So how did American get so many more seats back there?

Coach used to be 2-5-2 across on that airplane. American followed the current trend to squeeze in 3-4-3 across, an extra seat in each row.

So now, there are fewer premium cabin travelers, but they’re in a much better seat. Those who can’t sit up front now have a shot at more legroom in Main Cabin Extra, which is good. But those in the back get the squeeze, at least from a width perspective.

In theory, this better matches the product with what people are willing to pay, and that means those who pay little get less than before. But even if the personal space isn’t impacted all that much, there are still a lot more people crammed in a tube who are fighting over the now-tiny lavatories. That impacts everyone (ok, well, everyone in coach).

At some point, the airlines will hit a wall and they won’t be able to go any further. I keep waiting for that to happen, but people continue to fill those airplanes with profitable fares. When that stops, then the airlines will have to stop. But until then, you’re not going to see the airlines change the way they do things. Just remember, it’s not always bad. (But sometimes, it certainly is.)

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