Airlines’ Coach Experience Continues to Worsen Reaffirming My Miles and Points Hobby Choice

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It’s been almost five years since I started into the Miles and Points hobby.

At the time I was familiar with using hotel points for free stays and had even signed up for the Marriott Rewards card in hopes of earning even more free nights. Little did I know at the time of sign-up what a losing proposition that would be – trying to use a single credit card to accrue enough points for free stays just doesn’t work. At normal usage, I was lucky to have enough points for a free night, maybe two, a year.

Since becoming a serious hobbyist, I’ve learned how to turn that proposition around and maximize credit card sign-up bonuses and everyday spending to get much more than a free night or two out of my efforts.

Hotel stays aside, it was the lure of free flights that really piqued my interest back then. Specifically, flights in first or business class for long-haul itineraries.

I could care less about the amenities associated with flying in the front of the plane; it was the ability to have some level of comfort for a 6, 10 or even 15-hour non-stop flight. Something any reasonable person would agree is not possible sitting in an economy class seat.

As the years have progressed, airlines continue to do their best to make the coach experience worse than the year before.

An article in last week’s Wall Street Journal, written by Scott McCartney, and titled, “The Best and Worst Coach Seats on U.S. Airlines,” hammered that point home pretty well, while reaffirming to me, once again, why I got into the Miles and Points hobby.

The article is behind The Wall Street Journal’s pay firewall, so if you aren’t a subscriber, you likely won’t be able to view the piece in its entirety.

I found many of Mr. McCartney’s points very interesting, so I’m offering a few of them below with my thoughts after each one.

 

“Some airlines are down to 28 inches of space from the back of your seat to the seat back in front of you in their basic coach rows, down from the once-standard 32 inches of what’s called seat pitch. That’s a difference felt right in the kneecap. Airlines considered full-service have shrunk down to 30 inches and American Airlines, which 15 years ago gave each row of coach seats 34 inches of space, considered going to rows with as few as 29 inches.”

 

The takeaway: Airlines in the past 15 or so years have decreased the space coach travelers have while upping the discomfort factor, especially for those flyers larger than average size.

American Airlines backed off from its 29-inch proposal amid traveler outcry, moving from its current 31-inch pitch to the now 30-inch industry norm for the new basic coach layout in the newly delivered 737 Max 8.

Interestingly, similarly sized 737s used to fly with 150 seats, which increased to 160 in 2015, and which will now carry a shoulder scrunching, knee crushing 172 seats.

How are airlines able to even consider packing in so many more seats without making travel intolerable for many passengers?

Slim-line seats.

 

“At the same time, seat manufacturers found ways to make coach seats lighter and smaller. New metals and composite materials make skinny frames stronger. Three-dimensional computer modeling aided seat design, manufacturers say. Instead of hard backs and seat pans, manufacturers started using mesh covered with thin layers of foam. (Think Aeron office chairs.) Magazine pockets were moved up high on the seat back and seat bottoms changed shape to open up shin room.

 Take 3 inches out of padding out of a seat back and you can push the seats several inches closer together without reducing personal space. In many cases, the new seats are more comfortable.”

 

You’ll definitely hear the airlines tout the comfort of these new seats. Unfortunately, you’ll also hear/read many accounts from frequent flyers who say these slim-line seats are fine for a few hour flight, but once your butt-in-seat time exceeds 3-4 hours, you’re going to feel a difference…and not in a good way. A 15-hour non-stop from L.A. to Australia – I don’t think so.

And, as the article points out, while, thanks to slim-line seats, the distance for your knees remains the same in a reduced pitch cabin, your head is much closer to your fellow passengers’, lending to a greater feeling of confinement.

Excuse me for a moment, I’m having to slow my breathing just thinking about those close quarters.

While seat pitch is a large piece of the air travel comfort pie, seat width also comes into play.

 

“Boeing single-aisle planes typically have 17.2-inch-wide seats in coach. Airbus single-aisle planes have 18.3 inches because of a wider fuselage.”

 

Without knowing the specific numbers, I’ve always felt more comfortable in an Airbus aircraft. Now I know why. Book your flights accordingly.

 

“Seats on widebody planes used to be 18 inches wide, but now that is dwindling to 17 inches. The Boeing 787 was designed to have eight seats across, but now almost every airline flies it with nine 17-inch-wide seats in each row. The Boeing 777 has gone from nine abreast to 10.”

“The difference between 17 and 18 is a big deal. You lose wiggle room. You’re shoulder to shoulder,” Mr. Counter says.

 

Widebodies typically fly the extremely long flights, and as you can see, not only is the seat pitch being reduced but so is the seat width. And, to throw salt on the wound, the airlines are adding even more seats to an already cramped economy cabin!

 

I get it, the airline business is a low-margin operation and profits have to be squeezed from anyplace they can.

The problem is, the literal squeezing of passengers has, for many, hit its limit. I’m just not sure the airlines get it…or even, really, care.

Which brings me back to my original point – yes, the Miles and Points hobby is a great way to save significant amounts of money on your travels, but it’s also a way to avoid extreme discomfort when traveling to destinations that will keep you seated in an aircraft for hours on end.

I would never pay $5,000 to $10,000 for a roundtrip business class ticket to a far-flung destination. But with airline miles, and a little effort accruing those miles, the cost for that business class seat can be reduced to just a few hundred dollars in taxes and fees. And for that amount you likely will get a single-spaced seat (double if on an older aircraft or in the middle section) that will lay completely flat for sleeping and offers a nice sized screen for on-demand entertainment that will keep you occupied for the flight’s duration. A far different level of comfort than the closely spaced economy class seats just a dozen or so feet further back.

I doubt we’ll ever see airlines return to a more tolerable coach layout. I’m not sure how it can get much worse, but I’ll bet the airlines will try.

Luckily, there is an economical option for avoiding the tight confines of long-haul coach.

And I can’t express how glad I am I found it.

coach seats image courtesy of jk1991 at freedigitalphotos.net

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