U.S. airlines are adding seats without adding planes

  • Article by: TERRY MAXON , Dallas Morning News
  • Updated: August 15, 2014 - 11:36 PM

Figuring out ways to fit more people on a plane can boost revenue at very little cost.

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American Airlines Group Inc. signage is displayed on a Boeing Co. 777-300ER aircraft at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, China, on Friday, June 13, 2014.

Photo: Brent Lewin, Bloomberg

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Over the next few years, American Airlines Inc. will increase the size of its Boeing 777-200 fleet by 17 percent, or nearly 2,000 seats.

It will do so without adding a single airplane.

Fort Worth, Texas-based American is removing the first-class cabin, upgrading the business-class cabin and adding coach seats to increase capacity on those 47 airplanes from 247 seats to 289 seats — adding a lot more seats to sell with little increase in expense.

Similarly, Southwest Airlines Co. undertook a three-pronged approach several years ago to increase its capacity without increasing its fleet. It put another row of seats in most of its existing 137-seat airplanes; it began flying a larger, 175-seat version of the Boeing 737; and it is taking 117-seat Boeing 717s out of its fleet.

The result? Since the end of 2011, Dallas-based Southwest has reduced the number of airplanes it is operating by 2.1 percent but has increased the number of seats it flies 4.6 percent.

In industry lingo, Southwest and American are up-gauging — the new buzzword for U.S. airlines. Throughout the U.S. airline industry, other carriers are performing variations on what the two North Texas-based carriers are doing.

They’re increasing capacity without increasing their fleets. They’re putting more seats on existing airplanes, and they’re replacing smaller airplanes with bigger ones.

Delta Air Lines offered 3 percent more capacity on its domestic route network in the second quarter than in the same three months of 2013, even though it operated 4 percent fewer flights.

Alaska Airlines expects to increase capacity 7 percent in 2014, with 2.5 percentage points of that coming simply from flying larger airplanes. It increasingly buys the larger Boeing 737s, the 737-800s and 737-900s, and it’s increasing the number of seats in those airplanes.

JetBlue Airways, which historically has flown only 100-seat Embraer jets and 150-seat Airbus A320 jets, began flying 190-seat Airbus A321s in December. From 2014 through 2017, it will take delivery of 48 of the A321s but only three of the smaller A320s.

American is increasing the seating on its Boeing 737-800s to 160 seats, up from 150, as well as increasing the number of seats in the Boeing 777-200s.

There’s also been a boom in the use of regional jets with 76 seats or more, while the number of jets with 50 seats or fewer is shrinking.

“It’s really a common theme throughout the entire business here in the United States,” said Andrew Nocella, American senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

The added seats have done nothing to increase the comfort of the majority of passengers crowded into the coach section. But the advent of thinner seats has minimized the loss of legroom on many airplanes.

The Boeing 777-200 conversion is a particularly interesting one. Delivered between 1999 and 2001, the 777-200 has been the international flagship of American’s fleet. As such, it had the latest and greatest seating for that era.

But two years ago, American began accepting delivery of the Boeing 777-300ER, a larger, 310-seat airplane that has displaced the 777-200 at the top of American’s aircraft hierarchy.

The 777-300ER, equipped with the latest in lie-flat seating, in-flight entertainment and amenities, is now used on high-value routes like London Heathrow and São Paulo, Brazil, as well as American’s longest international route, Dallas/Fort Worth to Hong Kong.

The main aircraft serving American’s Asian routes remains the 777-200. From Dallas/Fort Worth, for example, American uses the 777-200 to fly to Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul, with only Hong Kong getting the 777-300ER.

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