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Wonder Whether the Seats On Commercial Aircraft Have Shrunk? Here's Why

Wonder Whether the Seats On Commercial Aircraft Have Shrunk? Here's Why

It might seem ludicrous at first, but yes, commercial aircraft nowadays have seats that offer really cramped sitting spaces. In earlier days, the aircrafts had so much legroom that passengers often were confused about how to utilize all that extra space. So how much space have we exactly lost? Though the exact specifications from earlier commercial planes are hard to come by, it is the passengers, who have started keeping track of the seat width and available legroom that have made this information public.

The Golden Age of Flying

Earlier, the economy class on the sprawling jet airliners featured two rows of seats, which were apart by 34 to 36 inches. For example, the Boeing 707, which were first introduced in 1958 and ushered the “Jet Age”, offered 34 inches of pitch between seats. This, however, started to change in the 80s, when manufacturers started to cut the seat pitch in the economy class, from 35 inches to just 32. During these times, an argument flourished that with less bulky, newer seats onboard, the seat pitch of 32 inches would seem as much as was before. Thus began the trend of improving profits by fitting-in as many passengers as possible.

Subsequently, the four of the biggest commercial airlines in America (Delta, American, United, and Southwest) have cut significant legroom over the three-decade period. Fast forward to 2018 and no commercial airlines in America offer more than 33 inches, while the American, United, and Delta have now gone down to 30. Moreover, while its only Qantas that offers more than 31 inches, the Virgin Atlantic goes as low as 29 inches, for long-haul flights.

Just How Low can the Airlines Go?

The 29-inch space found on Virgin Atlantic A330s is quite rare for an airline service offering trans-continental flights. That said, a recent survey concluded that only two of the 30 commercial airlines offer less than 30 inches of seat pitch on long-haul flights, with Virgin Atlantic sharing the honor with Thomas Cook Airlines. Then, there is another survey, which nominates a few more players for this category. These include China Southern, Lion Air (Indonesia), WOW Air (Iceland) and Vanilla Air (Japan). If we talk about short-haul flights, there are dozens of airlines now, who offer as much as 29 inches of seat pitch, such as BA, Vueling,, EasyJet, Aurigny and Norwegian. To make matters more complicated, there are others who have dropped even further to 28 inches. These “notorious“ airlines include:

  1. Thomas Cook Airlines

  2. TAP Portugal

  3. Tui Airways

  4. Spirit Airlines (US)

  5. Spring Airlines (China)

  6. Thai Airways

  7. Frontier Airlines (US)

  8. Iberia (Spain)

  9. LATAM Brasil

Should You Worry Much About the Shrinking Sitting Space?

Economy class passengers have lost as much as eight inches of legroom since the golden years of flying, in the 70s and 80s. The manufacturers, however, regularly suggest that it is not the seat pitch, but seat width that really defines the comfort aboard the flight. According to a survey, none of the big four airlines in America offered less than 19 inches of seat width in 1985. However, most airlines in the US feature as much as 17 inches of seat width. The following commercial airlines offer seat widths of 17 inches or less:

  1. Air Transat (Canada)

  2. American

  3. Delta

  4. Nok Air (Thailand)

  5. United

  6. Saudia

  7. Turkish Airlines


Overall, commercial airlines are focusing more on improving the profits while passengers’ comfort takes a backseat. Therefore, it is a bit unnerving to see the airliners, barring a few, reduce the available sitting space, by citing a number of reasons. Perhaps, it is a sign that we need to revive the good old days of flying.

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