Despite new jets like Boeing's Dreamliner -- with all its built in comfort features like higher humidity cabins, larger windows, and mood lighting -- airlines are choosing to fit more people into their planes with smaller seats and more seats across the width of economy class.
According to Wall Street Journal, early Boeing jets had a standard seat width of 17 inches. That standard grew to 18 inches for long-distance flights in the 1970s and 80s with Boeing's 747 jumbo and the first Airbus jets and peaked at 18.5 inches in the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380. Now airlines are reversing course and opting for 17-inch seats on Boeing 777 and the new 787s and 18 inch-seats on the Airbus A350s.
For almost 20 years, the standard setup in the back of a Boeing 777 was nine seats per row. But last year, nearly 70% of its biggest version of the plane were delivered with 10-abreast seating, up from just 15% in 2010.
Of the airlines that have bought Boeing Co.'s new 787 Dreamliner—a model touted as improving passenger comfort—90% have selected nine-abreast seating in coach over roomy eight-abreast. And 10 airlines around the world now fly narrower Airbus A330 jetliners with nine 16.7-inch seats in each row—among the tightest flying—rather than the eight it was designed for, according to the unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co.
To be clear, these are design and business decisions made by the airlines. Boeing and Airbus make the jets -- designing things like overhead bins and bathroom -- but airlines can customize the cabins to fit their needs. So if you're feeling crunched on a Dreamliner it was likely a strategic decision by the airline to fit more people on the flight, which, of course, increases their revenue and efficiency.
But at the front of the cabin it's a different story, with airlines spending billions to build a bigger, better business class, which can account for as much as half of revenue for airlines.