Southwest slims armrests to fiddle the seat width numbers

An aircraft has only so much room inside. With airlines ever more aggressive in squeezing passengers into the planes every inch matters and the comparisons of pitch and width carry great weight in the media. Alas, the numbers are not always what they seem.

After a false start at last year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo the 11-abreast A380 layout is on display in 2015. Perhaps even more impressive is that Airbus has seats from two vendors on display in the mock-up. This is not just a “blue sky” theoretical offering. The company is serious about it as a solution for airlines. That’s just one of the depressing bits of news out of Hamburg this year.

Airbus is quick to point out that it continues to provide 18″ seat width in the new layout and tape measures came out during the unveiling to prove the point. But, like many similar announcements, the devil is in the details. Measuring between the arm rests does yield an 18″ dimension but no one bothered to measure the arm rests. They are notably narrower, pressing passengers ever closer together. And pity the poor soul stuck in the window seat; the fuselage curve cuts out 25-30% of the legroom available there, yielding a particularly awkward seating layout.

Southwest Airlines, the largest operator of Boeing 737 family aircraft in the world, used the show to launch its new economy class seat developed in partnership with B/E Aerospace. The company is touting increased seat width, a rather impressive development given that the fuselage diameter has not changed in decades. Various outlets are reporting an increase of up to 0.7 inches per seat, more than 4 inches overall in each row.

Where are those inches coming from?

B/E Aerospace is not talking. The company would not provide any information on the product despite multiple requests during the Hamburg event citing company policy. Southwest acknowledges that some of the additional width comes in the form of narrower arm rests. That’s not really additional personal space for each passenger so much as moving the measuring sticks and calling it greater space.

At the end of the day personal space in economy continues to feel a pinch. And that’s bad news for passengers, even if the airline industry is trying its best to distract us from that pain.