Why Airlines Reducing Leg Room Isn’t Always Bad

Have you ever wondered whether aircraft seats are getting smaller or if you’re eating too many pies? Chances are it’s the seats, despite your pie intake.

Back in the ‘golden age’ of flying, it was all about luxury. Check out these happy people on board a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar back in the 70’s. And that’s economy class!

Early jet airliners typically offered from 34 to 36 inches of pitch That’s airline code for leg room on flights. The first Boeing 747s, flown by Pan Am and similar carriers offered ‘industry standard’ 34 inches of pitch. Then came the 80s.

As competition increased, airlines looked to squeeze in a few more passengers each trip and reduced the aforementioned industry standard to just 32 inches of pitch. Since then there has been less and less leg room on flights as carriers aim to pack in as many passengers as possible.

American Airlines dubiously named ‘Project Oasis’ is all about it retrofitting an extra 22 seats in a 737-800, at the detriment of our leg room. Virgin’s A330s have a knee bending 29 inches of pitch alone, and a number of short haul carriers (Thomas Cook, TUI, Thai Airways, Spirit and more) are all members of the ‘28’ club, offering less leg room on flights than anyone else in the sky.

Nobody wants to be squished on their flight, but is there an upside to the prospect of forever travelling with aching knees?

How leg room reductions were a win for Norwegian

Yesterday we shared the news of how Norwegian were judged by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) as being the most fuel efficient transatlantic airline, and how BA are the worst. The metric used to judge the efficiency of these trips is passenger kilometres per litre, or pax-km/l.

It follows quite logically then that if you have more passengers on the same aircraft, you’ll be getting more passenger kms to the litre. Obvious really.

Let’s revisit the ranking from yesterday:

Atop the list is, of course, Norwegian. Now, we all know they’ve been investing heavily in lots of nice new aircraft, with an average fleet age of just 3.7 years. This definitely helps in terms of efficiency but let’s look at the passenger per craft factor too.

Norwegian’s long haul fleet is comprised mainly of 19 787-8 Dreamliners. Boeing state that the Dreamliner uses 20% less fuel than comparable aircraft, which puts Norwegian onto a winner right away. More recently they have also started using the 737MAX on transatlantic routes too, with plans to fly long haul with narrowbodies more in the future too.

Seating wise, here’s how their scorecard looks:

  • 787-8: 291 seats in total – 32 premium and 259 economy
  • 787-9: 344 seats in total – 35 premium and 309 economy
  • 737MAX: 189 seats, all economy
norwegian dreamliner 3 3 3 B787-9
Norwegian manage to squeeze 344 seats in a 3-3-3 configuration into their 787-9 Dreamliner Photo: Norwegian

Second on the list is WOW Air, also the proud owner of a pretty youthful fleet. Their North American routes are served by the Airbus A321, said to be more fuel efficient than the rest of the A320 family. It also uses the A330 for routes in and out of California.

Here’s how their seating looks:

  • A321: 200 seats (V1) or 220 seats (V2) all economy
  • A330 (V1): 342 seats in total – 23 XL and 319 standard
  • A330 (V2): 344 seats in total – 14 recliners, 16 XXL and 308 standard

You’ll notice an absence of premium or business class on WOW, and that’s because they simply don’t have them. Economy guests can upgrade to seats with a greater pitch or which actually recline, but it’s not the same as going business class at all.

Now let’s consider the bottom of the list, and poor old British Airways. They also invest in new aircraft, although they do still operate some older models too. For ease of comparison, let’s look at some of the same craft we did with WOW and Norwegian:

  • 787-8: 214 seats – 35 Club World, 25 World Traveller Plus and 154 economy
  • 787-9: 216 seats – 8 First Class, 42 Club World, 39 World Traveller Plus and 127 economy
  • A321: 154 seats – 26 Club World, 131 economy

You can instantly see the problem here. It’s almost unfair to compare BA with Norwegian and WOW, because they’re targeting a completely different sector of the market. Norwegian are stoically a long haul, low fare carrier, and WOW are proud to be a no frills airline. BA, on the other hand, are absolutely catering for the premium market.

British Airways leg room on flights is always at least 31 inches pitch. Both Norwegian and WOW have seat pitch going down to 29 inches, although this is not all their seats all the time. So, in term of leg room reductions being a good thing, it certainly boosted the green credentials of these carriers.

Are there any other positives to less leg room on flights?

The upside in general to less leg room on flights is that the carbon emissions associated with your trip are less. Tourism globally accounts for around 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, and in the US, air travel contributes 11% of the nations overall carbon output.

More people on planes (with less leg room) means less carbon emissions per head, which is a good thing, right? Research suggests that travelling business class can triple the carbon cost of your flight, so choose an economy seat if you’re keen to keep your individual footprint low.

From January 1st, 2019, airlines will be required to monitor, report and verify the carbon emissions of their operations under the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA. Developed by the ICAO, this scheme is designed to encourage all carriers to offset CO2 emissions from flying, with a view to making the industry carbon neutral by 2020.

So, from a carriers point of view, leg room reductions mean fewer carbon emissions and therefore less investment required to offset. Let’s just hope they don’t figure out how much less space humans take up when standing.