Cramped Cabins: Airfare Expected to Rise While Legroom Shrinks

Cash-strapped airlines could make your next trip too cozy for comfort.

Reporter Michael Arndt checks out the business class seats which recline nearly 180 degrees on Northwest Airlines A330-300 jet.
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Cramped airplane cabins have become somewhat of a caricature in recent years as budget-strapped airlines have tried to squeeze the most profit out of each flight.

But coach class could get a lot more claustrophobic in coming months, according to the Los Angeles Times, as an increasing number of airlines start charging fees for more legroom, relegating in-flight space and comfort to the growing list of add-on costs for travelers.

Following in the footsteps of fees for checked bags, early boarding, and mid-flight snacks, more airlines are introducing a new class of roomier seats with names such as Economy Plus (United) and Classic Plus (Frontier) that offer passengers more space to spread out but at a higher price tag.

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The move to break out a group of more spacious, higher-priced seats marks a growing departure from the mere two options — first class and coach — most airlines offered just 10 or 15 years ago. Whereas economy seats used to make up about 90 percent of all seats on an average long-haul aircraft, today 10 percent to 30 percent of those are now dedicated to the roomier, pricier spots.

The new class of seats is also a testament to the success airlines have had with the series of fees that have been tacked on in the wake of the economic recession, which severely dampened demand for air travel. Add-on fees generated almost $23 billion for airlines worldwide in 2011, making fees an increasingly popular tool for bolstering revenue.

But more legroom for some passengers comes at an expense, and not just for those willing to pony up the extra cash for more space. To make room for the seats with more legroom, carriers have cut 10 to 40 regular coach seats per plane. On some airlines, the remaining economy class seats get crammed even closer together.

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"When I fly, I no longer feel like a passenger, I feel like I'm cargo," retiree James Mewes told the Times. "The seats already do not have enough padding. They have gotten narrower, and the legroom has become smaller."

According to airfare comparison site FareCompare.com, the industry standard space between seats is around 31 inches. But as airlines have finagled seating charts to cram more seats in or accommodate more legroom for premium seats, that space has shrunk to 28 inches in some cases.

"This is part of the new normal for airlines — they need to make money on every square inch of their planes," Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, said in a recent podcast. "They're in the process of reconfiguring these planes where they're going to add some extra legroom up in the front of economy and on the backside you're just going to be even more cramped."

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"If this trend continues, pretty soon we'll be seeing some of these stand-up configurations on some of these short flights," Seaney joked.

Seaney does point out that many of these new seat configurations are being implemented on newer aircraft equipped with more ergonomic seats, so the change won't be "completely terrible," he says.

Still, that's likely to be little consolation for consumers who are already forking over big bucks for air travel this year. Fares have risen about 4.5 percent so far in 2012, according to some estimates, and while experts don't expect hikes to be as steep in 2013, consumers will still be paying as much as 4 percent more for plane tickets.

The increases seen this year and projected for next year are much better than the more than 8 percent uptick travelers saw in 2011, but analysts still caution that fares have plenty of time to jump in the last two months of 2012.

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  • Meg Handley is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at mhandley@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter at @mmhandley.