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Smaller seats are not the only reason passengers feel more constricted these days. Travelers are also getting bigger. In the last four decades, the average American gained a little more than 20 pounds and his or her waist expanded about 2.5 inches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The dimensions of airplanes, however, have not changed and neither has the average width of a coach seats, which is 17 to 18 inches.
As the cabins grow more crowded, airlines say they are thinking only of their customers, trying to keep costs down. Jude Bricker, the senior vice president of planning at Allegiant, said the airline’s nonreclining seats have fewer moving parts and so require less maintenance, which means lower costs. This allows the airline to keep its fares low, he said.
“We are continually reminded from customers and their behavior that what they want most is convenient service with a low fare,” Bricker said.
Several budget carriers in Europe have also adopted stiff seats, including Ryanair and EasyJet. Air France, for its domestic flights, which never take more than an hour, has installed nonreclining seats where the magazine pocket has been moved above the tray table to provide more space in the critical area around the knees.
For passengers willing to pay more, airlines offer more room at a price. Business class remains an ultracompetitive market that sees constant innovation and comfortable amenities, like seats that recline fully. Airlines are also increasingly offering several rows of coach seats with more legroom - also at an extra price.
Still, the squeeze is on for most passengers in coach. On a flight from Washington to Frankfurt, Germany last year, Odysseas Papadimitriou, the chief executive of WalletHub.com, a personal finance social network, was challenged by a tall passenger seated behind him when he reclined his seat. “He was like, ‘Hey, watch it, buddy. I don’t fit here with you reclining the seat,’” he said.
Papadimitriou called the flight attendant to mediate the dispute and eventually tilted his seat back, but the price he paid to recline was a fitful night’s sleep, as the other passenger grumbled and pushed against the back of his seat for the rest of the flight.
There are ways of resolving conflicts other than bumping into other passengers, as Rowland, the speaker and consultant, found out.
“I lean forward and tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘I’ll buy you a drink if you don’t push your seat back,’” Rowland said. “It’s made flying very pleasant.”