Skift Take

We like Scott Kirby because of his honesty. He's right. Travelers may say they want comfort, but most value price over everything else.

As one of its major competitors, American Airlines, reduces seat pitch on some new airplanes, might United Airlines seek a competitive advantage by offering more room to coach customers?

“The short answer is no,” United President Scott Kirby told employees recently at a town hall meeting in Cleveland.

United has been coy about whether it will copy American, which said in early May it will reduce seat pitch to 29 inches in some rows on new Boeing 737 Max aircraft, and admitted it might retrofit existing 737s to a similar standard.

For most of the past decade, U.S. carriers have been adding seats and reducing seat pitch to increase revenues. But until American’s announcement, no major U.S. carrier had the audacity to reduce economy class seat pitch below 29 inches. Only the biggest discounters, like Spirit Airlines and Ryanair, are so tight.

After American confirmed its decision, a source familiar with United’s thinking said the Chicago-based carrier had been evaluating something similar. Kirby, who was American’s president until August 2016, didn’t mention it during his recent chat with employees, but he suggested passengers should get accustomed to having less room.

“Seat pitch has come down,” Kirby said. “But seat pitch has come down because that’s what customers voted with their wallets that they wanted. I know everyone would tell you, ‘I would like more seat pitch.’ But the history in the airline industry is every time airlines put more seat pitch on, customers choose the lowest price.”

For now, most of United’s planes have pitch of 30 or 31 inches. Pitch measures the distance on one seat to the same space on the seat in front of it, so the metric is not directly tied to legroom. But generally seats with less pitch offer less knee and leg room.

“If you take a row of seats off an airplane — you take 4 percent of the seats off the airplane — it costs the same amount to fly the airplane as it did before,” Kirby said. “You’re burning the same amount of fuel. You pay the pilots the same. Maintenance is the same. So you have to charge 4 percent more to make that break even. Customers have to be willing to pay more if they want more seat pitch. And the evidence is that they aren’t willing to.”

One of the best examples happened at American in 2000, when the carrier removed about 7,200 seats from its fleet to ensure most regular coach seats had 34 or more inches of pitch. In 2002, the airline bragged it received “thousands of letters, emails and phone calls from travelers saying thanks for the comfort.” But few travelers want to pay more for the comfort, and by 2004, the “more room throughout coach” program was gone.

During the brief attempt at providing comfort, American’s 737-800s had 134 seats. The new 737Max, which have the same sized cabins, likely will have 172 seats, CNN reported. 

As for United, Kirby said the carrier wants to be competitive with Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines, and “seat pitch in the back is one of the things it means.”

Kirby acknowledged customers complain to him about losing legroom, but said he usually responds the same way. He recommends they buy up to Economy Plus, where seat pitch is generally between 34 and 36 inches.

“I say, ‘Pay a little more and you get can get seat pitch,” he said. “If it’s worth it to you, you can do it. But if you just want the cheapest fare, this is what it is.”

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Tags: airline passenger experience, american airlines, united airlines

Photo credit: United Airlines has no plans to make coach seats roomier for passengers, its president told employees recently. United Airlines

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