The Simple Math Explaining Why That Airline Seat Is In Your Face

photoI am on a flight from Seattle to Denver on Alaska Airlines and typing on a laptop that is tipped on my lap with my elbows pulled back. Cramped. Because the guy in front of me has reclined his seat (and I don’t blame him if he got up at 4:45am like I did). Raise your hand if you know this scenario. I am thankfully without a passenger to my left otherwise I would not be able to type with both hands.

Travelers the world over likes to grouse about how airlines suck and that we are packed in like cattle. The ‘seat recline’ complaint is heard often on social media and I am betting you have read at least one complaint from a friend or acquaintance this year. Probably more, if your friends travel often as mine do. It was pointed out to me by Pam Mandel that leveling your angst at the blurry-eyed passenger in front of you, who only wishes to nod off, is wrongheaded.

Her point was you should be complaining to the airline. The airline (and not the plane manufacturer) decides how many seats go in their planes. They are the ones putting your seat within sneezing distance of the one in front of you. I therefor agree with Pam’s logic (there it is, on the Internet for all to see). So why don’t airlines give us more space and make it more attractive to fly with them rather than their competitor?

The quick answer is they are cheap bastards just like us. We don’t want to pay more than we have to for any service. Airlines don’t want to incur more cost and make less profit than they have to. Raise your hand if you enjoy having money and not being poor. See? We both, kind of, want the same thing.

Some airlines do offer seats with more room. But they cost more (more grousing and gnashing of teeth from those trying to fly on the cheap) and I have read and heard comments, more than a few times, from seemingly sane friends refusing to pay more for those seats with more space. “Rip off!” “All the seats should have that space!” come the cries. To those complainers, let me lay out the simple math as I see it. I hope this helps you understand why giving you more seating space will cost you more money.

An airline is a business and a commercial business exists to make money by offering goods or services to customers for a higher price than they pay for the raw materials it takes to deliver those goods or services. Simple enough. Let’s take a look at the plane I am on to see how much more six inches (6”) of seating space will cost me. Six inches would give me space to set this laptop on the tray table and not be scrunched up like a hermit in a hovel.

This plane has 19 rows in coach with six seats in each row to equal 114 passengers. Let’s assume it’s full (and be happy that it is not). I paid $200 two and a half months ago for this leg of the trip. I know not everyone paid the same, but let’s assume this is close to the minimum for a two hour flight of a little more than 1,000 miles. That means the airline brought in $22,800 from those of us in coach (we’ll ignore First Class passengers for now because I haven’t a clue what they spent). $22,800 buys the fuel, pays the wages, keeps the plane flightworthy and ensures everyone can have orange juice if they desire.

I measured my seat using the assumed length of the inflight magazine to be 11”. It looks close. From the back of my seat to the same point on the seat in front of me (I did this before take-off when the seat in front of me wasn’t reclined because I’m that forward-thinking of a writer. And because I had to have my iPhone turned off which meant I was hopelessly bored) is just less than three magazines. I rounded down to 32”. 19 rows times 32” equals 608” of passenger space.

Still with me? No need to raise your hand. If I want six more inches of seating space, I’m guessing everyone else will get it to. That’s the socialist pig mentality I employ regularly. 19 rows times 38” equals 722”. Someone’s not going to be seated inside this plane because I know they are not going to stretch it out to fit everyone. 114” more inches? That’s 10 more feet of plane and that would cost the airline more because it is a whole other class of airplane. Remember, Boeing wants to make money also.

Well then, some of us have to go. 114” divided by 38” of luxurious, newly acquired space means three rows less people or 18 less passengers. Now there are only 96 of us on the flight in coach to foot the $22,800 tab which means my ticket price would now be $237.50. An 18.75% increase.

And that’s the (somewhat overly simple) math of it.

The next time you are shopping for a flight and looking to save a buck, consider how important leg and face space is to you. Then use a tool like to compare the seat space between flights. Or consider the “Economy Plus” seating options if available, knowing that you shouldn’t pay much more than a 20% premium for an extra six inches of seating space.

Personally I won’t pay extra for that extra space unless I know I have work to do. I am flying 1000 miles for $200, or $.20/mile, in two hours time. Far, far better than driving or taking the train when I have appointments to keep and can’t ‘afford’ the time (although I LOVE a good road trip).

How about you? Would you regularly pay 20% more for six more inches of seating space?

6 Replies to “The Simple Math Explaining Why That Airline Seat Is In Your Face”

  1. Gabriel Itaya

    Haha. Are you an econ major? Great explanation. A bit simple, but something people always forget when they start complaining about this that or the other. Plus, how about the sheer amazingness of getting a multi-ton piece of metal to fly through the air.

  2. Kim

    I think we may be missing some of the econ factors like: Fewer customers to purchase less inflight items, less passengers check less bags for those crazy fees. Your 20% may be missing some pieces. The cost may be the same in fuel and airplane, and airport landing fees, but there are other things that increase based on the sheer number of people that utilize them. What would DIA do if it had 20% less foot traffic? Probably decrease the lease space for the retail shops and eating establishments on the D wing, who will of course, be effected. Lower rates there, higher airport fees to the airlines, and you may have just lost your cost savings. Conversely, less people on the airplanes means less maintenance (can we really go two or three legs without pumping the loo?) and cost savings may be re-realized there.

    It IS a service, and there is a fine line that we walk between the Walmart and the Nordstroms of the airways. We luckily HAVE the choice, and it is more than reflected in our credit card statements come years end.

    Okay, lets go back to the simple math, and assume all things equal, would I pay 20% more for 6″ more space? on a $200 flight, thats no biggie, but on a $1000 flight, that’s $200, which is a little steep for me. Do I complain? Of course; what else do we have to break the ice with strangers turned neighbors for two hours? But over all, I think we should take that anger towards the lack of 6 inches and say “How about that sheer amazingness of getting a multi-ton piece of metal to fly through the air?”

  3. Brian

    I think you nailed it. The bottom line problem isn’t with the airlines, its with the passengers. If passengers truly valued more personal space, they’d be willing to pay a premium for it. But they won’t. Despite the airlines every attempt, air travel is viewed by the consuming public as a commodity. The only metric most of us use in choosing a flight between any two destinations is price. Knowing this, the airlines only really compete on price. In that game, the low cost airline wins. And to be the low cost airline, you have to get the very most out of each flight – which means packing in the people.

    And for those who blame the person in front of them for putting their seat back . . . they should remember that their seat reclines too. If they put theirs back they’ll have exactly as much space as they started with. No need to get huffy.

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