Southwest Airlines Shrinks Legroom for Profits

by  Zoë Mintz | Aug 20, 2012
Southwest Airlines plane
Southwest Airlines plane / Boarding1Now/iStock

Desperate for profits, the airline industry is known for charging customers for services that used to come standard. Remember free meals, checked baggage, and headphones? Over time, the industry has gradually reduced the legroom offered to customers. Originally at 32 inches a decade ago, The Boston Globe observed that averages have since dropped to 31 inches. Southwest Airlines is now packing six more rows of seats into their Boeing 737-700 fleet, thereby reducing legroom space by an inch for economy customers. If you want that inch back, the airline created premium rows at an added cost.

Southwest claims that the new rows were an afterthought, added only after the company determined it would not affect comfort. According to the airline, the upgrade to their cabins, dubbed EVOLVE,  aims to improve comfort by offering low-profile seats in “earthy tones” using “eco-friendly products,” which will allow for “ better lumbar support, armrest alignment, and increased personal living space.” Once again, this is another veiled way of squeezing their customers (literally) for profit.

Southwest isn’t the only airline employing this strategy. The Boston Globe noted that JetBlue Airways, which touted itself as having the most legroom in the industry, recently removed an inch of space in the rear 11 rows of its Embraer E190 aircraft to fit in bigger, more expensive, economy rows. Canadian carrier WestJet also culled a couple of inches of legroom from its economy class to between 31 and 32 inches, down from 32 to 34 inches, a move the company claimed would bring them in line with their U.S. competitors.

As seats continue to shrink, travelers are spending the extra money for premium economy seating – the added legroom, overhead cabin space, and window/aisle preference seem worth it. According to Jim Compton, United’s chief revenue officer and Richard Anderson, the chief executive of Delta Air Lines, there’s no end in sight for rising fees related to economy seat amenities. In a recent New York Times article, the two executives noted that added fees for seats are major factors in airline carriers’ profitability.

As Americans are getting bigger, and seats smaller, is the extra cost worth it? Should passengers have to pay more for the same legroom that was offered just a few years ago? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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