The recession is forcing airlines to rethink their seating configurations as they replenish their fleets with new aircraft. The challenge is squeezing more passengers into the same-size planes without sacrificing the comfort of passengers.
Take, for example, American Airlines' decision to buy its new 737-800s with a 160-seat configuration. That's a dozen more seats than the 737-800s the carrier bought at the beginning of the decade, and it's about 20 more seats than are on the aging MD-80s that the new 737-800s will be replacing.
American is achieving this by means of several configuration changes to the aircraft, of which the most controversial is likely to be a reduction in seat pitch, the distance from a point on one seat to the same point on the seat behind or in front of it.
Normally, pitch reduction translates into a more cramped cabin, but American claims that the way the seats have been designed and constructed will actually make them seem roomier.
American is among a growing list of airlines looking to pack more seats into the 737-800. Delta and Continental recently added 10 more seats, bringing their total seat count to 160.
Alaska Airlines also ordered 737-800s with 160 seats. But after taking delivery of three, the carrier removed three seats and added a bathroom in response to complaints from passengers.
The airlines are making these moves in an attempt to reduce their unit costs while updating their fleets with more fuel-efficient aircraft that they will be able to deploy on a greater number of routes.
American is buying 76 new 737-800s for about $75 million each over the next couple of years. It now has six in the fleet and is taking delivery of two to three planes per month.
"The whole strategy of purchasing new aircraft at this time is a long-term prospect," said American spokesman Tim Smith. "At some point, there's going to be a next-generation narrow body, but those aircraft seem to slide further and further out."
In the meantime, the airlines have to buy and take delivery now for markets they currently serve or expect to serve in the years ahead.
Analysts said that the more immediate reason for adding seats to 737s, the industry's most widely used aircraft, is that the recession is pushing former corporate and premium passengers out of first- and business-class cabins, and into coach seats.
"Business travelers are still downgrading," said Vaughn Cordle, an analyst with AirlineForecasts. "They are moving to the back of the airplane."
But Cordle and other analysts pointed out that this also represents a longer-term strategic move for the airlines. As the economy rebounds and travelers return to the skies, the carriers will be able to handle additional passengers without investing in more planes.
"They'll be able to squeeze more utilization out of those aircraft," Cordle said.
The airlines, analysts say, will think twice about boosting capacity by adding more aircraft as they have in decades past.
Darin Lee, an LECG consultant, said that at least some airlines "have learned their lessons regarding wildly adding capacity in the good times."
But he also acknowledged: "This is not uniform across carriers. I'm sure at the first sign of a full recovery, you will see some carriers get aggressive. But I think the industry as a whole won't go through those periods where everyone is adding 7% to 10%" more capacity to their fleets.
Smith admitted that the analysts are on or near the mark in their view of the airlines' strategic thinking.
But he also said that by adding the extra seats, American could plan to use the aircraft on shorter-haul international routes, such as the Southeastern U.S. to northern South America (Miami to points in Venezuela, for example).
"Think of this in terms of flying some routes with this where we currently fly 757s, which have 188 seats," he said.
For now, though, the airline is focusing on using the aircraft in and out of Chicago.
Dual configurations of the same aircraft could pose challenges for American, which will need to be sure it doesn't inadvertently book too many passengers on its older 737-800 fleet or too few on the new version of the plane.
The new 737-800s have a seat pitch of 31 inches in coach. Most of the seats on the older models of the plane had a 32-inch seat pitch, the same as on its 757s. American's MD-80 seats range in pitch from 31 inches to 33 inches.
A review of seating configurations on SeatGuru.com suggests that the 31-inch pitch is becoming the norm for legacy carriers. Delta's 160-seat 737-800s offer two seat pitches in coach: 32 inches for the first seven rows and 31 inches for the 15 rows behind the exit doors.
Smith said the seat-pitch loss would be mitigated by new seat bottoms that slide forward and back, somewhat like movie-theater seats. When a passenger reclines, the seat is designed to give more knee room to the person seated directly behind.
"It's like a La-Z-Boy recliner," Smith said.
In addition to seat pitch, American made other configuration changes to increase seating in the new 737-800s. These include using thinner seats, shrinking the bulkhead divider between the two cabins and removing two service-cart storage cabinets behind the last row, a change enabled by the carrier's cutbacks in food and beverage services.
Smith said the new seats were higher off the plane's floor, creating more legroom or more room for carry-ons stored under the seat.
"The thought that we're trying to squeeze customers," he said, "is absolutely untrue."