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OM in the News: Coach Gets More Crowded

November 9, 2014

airline seats“Skinny is all the rage on the runway right now,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 29, 2014). Delta, United, American, Southwest and other airlines around the world have installed seats with trim metal frames and ultrathin cushions, squeezing rows closer together to pack more people on each flight. Three-quarters of Delta’s domestic fleet and 1/4 of United’s now have the new slim-line seating. The lightweight seats—and even some new, skinnier bathrooms—improve airlines’ bottom line, with less fuel burned per passenger and more tickets sold per flight. (The new seats weigh just 24 pounds per passenger, or 30% less than traditional models). But passengers can feel the pinch: Some complain about stiff padding and knee-knocking issues, and liken flying in the new seat to squeezing next to strangers on a crowded park bench.

Each row of coach seats used to have 32 or 33 inches of space front to back for a seated passenger between seat backs—a measurement called seat pitch. But now many big airlines are down to 31 inches of seat pitch. United goes as tight as 30 inches on some of its Boeing 737s. And  it’s going to get worse. Boeing just announced the launch of new, denser seating on 737s called 737 MAX 200, aimed at low-cost airlines. The new MAX 200 version will be fitted with 200 seats. The current version of the same plane typically has 160 seats. Seat pitch on the new version will be as tight as 28 inches.

A survey by TripAdvisor of travelers who had tried the new seats found 83% said they were less comfortable than traditional seats. United, Delta and others say other coach improvements such as video on-demand and Wi-Fi help compensate for tighter seating. “Seats need to be comfortable. But other aspects are important, too, including entertainment, appearance and service,” says Delta.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. From an OM perspective, what are the advantages and disadvantages of the new seats?

2. Why are passengers concerned about the thinner seats?

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