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Boeing's new 787 could also be a tighter squeeze in coach. The plane was originally expected to have eight seats across but United Airlines, the only U.S. carrier currently flying it, went with nine across. Those seats are just 17.3 inches wide. So, passengers will have a skinnier seat for United's 12-hour flight from Houston to Lagos on a 787 than on its one-hour flight from Denver to Omaha on a different plane.
Delta Air Lines has already added slimline seats to about one-third of its fleet.
"Increasing density is a priority for us from the perspective of maximizing revenue, but the slimline seats are great because they allow us to do that without sacrificing customers' comfort," said Michael Henny, Delta's director of customer experience.
Seats from as recently as five years ago weighed almost 29 pounds, said Mark Hiller, CEO of Recaro Aircraft Seating. Its lightest seat now weighs 20. The weight savings comes from things like using plastic armrests instead of metal with a plastic cover, or on some seats replacing the metal pan that holds a passenger's posterior with mesh netting. Also, the new seats have fewer parts, reducing weight and costs.
Airplane seats from 30 years ago looked like your grandmother's BarcaLounger, said Jami Counter, senior director at SeatGuru.com, which tracks airline seats and amenities.
"All that foam cushion and padding probably didn't add all that much comfort. All that's been taken out," he said. "You haven't really lost all that much if the airline does it right."
Some Ford Trimotors built in the 1920s had wicker seats. Vern Alg has flown in one.
Alg, a former senior manager for aircraft interiors at Continental who is now a consultant for the Aircraft Interiors Expo, said his first airline flew DC-3s built in the 1940s. Their seats "were cumbersome, they were heavy," he says. "They were very, very comfortable (but) they required a great distance between the seats to achieve that comfort."
Today's closer-together coach seats are responding to a customer demand for cheap fares despite higher fuel prices, he said.
Alaska Airlines is replacing every seat in its fleet by the end of next year. The new seats will have one thing that passengers asked for: power outlets.
Those outlets are especially important as more people bring their own hand-held devices onto the plane. The airline is spending several million dollars to install both 110-volt and USB power at every coach seat, said Alaska marketing vice president Joe Sprague.
That might give travelers an extra reason to fly on Alaska, which is locked in intensive competition with Virgin America for customers in California.
The seat "is where our customers spend the greatest amount of time with us," Sprague said.