Friday, September 27, 2013

Why Can’t Airlines Just Add Extra Room?

Why can't we make this JetBlue Airbus A320 a bit wider? Photo: David Parker Brown.

Why can’t we make this JetBlue Airbus A320 a bit wider? Photo: David Parker Brown |

I recently saw a comment on an older post; it referenced a bad experience with a seat being too small.  The person posed the following: “If planes were just one foot wider, seats could be as wide as first class.  Would that kill Boeing or Airbus?”

I have seen this question come up quite a bit.  Sure, for some of you, the answer to this might be pretty obvious.  However, I don’t think that the majority of passengers really understand why this seemingly-simple change of adding more room to a plane is not simple at all.  And in the end, it is not what passengers really want anyhow.

Space means weight, which means money. Photo: David Parker Brown.

Space means weight, which means money – Photo: David Parker Brown |

The data tells us that humans just keep getting bigger – particularly Americans.  This is not only from poor diet and lack of exercise, but just how we have evolved as a species.  We have easier access to food and healthcare, and as a result are living longer, which in some way connects to us getting taller and wider.

At the same time, airliners are looking to cram as many people into a fuselage as possible in order to maximize efficiency, reduce costs, and maybe squeeze out a profit every quarter or so.  These two concepts together certainly have caused passengers to become upset, but are the airlines fully to blame?  I think not.  I think the majority of the blame lies in the demands of many passengers; they want the cheapest prices possible.


Let’s first take a look at the initial question of adding an extra foot of width to an airliner. Although it might seem like an easy concept, adding in an extra foot would be quite the undertaking. Let’s say Airbus just decided to slice the A320 down the center and add an extra foot. First off, this would take a good number of years to complete the research, make changes to the assembly process, and start having planes with additional width.  A good majority of the plane would likely require a re-design like the wings and landing gear, which are not easy tasks.

The biggest problem is the extra width would be the additional weight, which costs more money for the airlines.  The more an airplane weighs, the more fuel it will take getting it from point A to B.  At a time where airlines are doing whatever it takes to reduce the weight of an airplane, pound by pound, the cost per seat would surely need to increase to fly the extra foot around the world.  And remember, we are adding weight and costs to the plane, but at the same time passengers don’t want to pay more, so who is absorbing that cost?  The airlines? They barely make any profit now.  Airbus or Boeing?  Unlikely.

And let’s be honest here. If an extra foot was added to the width, there would be airlines, like Ryanair, trying to find out how to use that room to add more seats and passengers would be worse off than they were before.

Most passengers would love to fly like this (heck, who wouldn't). But per passenger, this 737 is not very cost effective.

Most passengers would love to fly like this (heck, who wouldn’t). But per passenger, this 737 is not very cost effective.


Although re-designing an aircraft can be a costly and timely endeavor, just taking out one seat per row or changing a six-abreast aircraft to only five seats would be much easier and give passengers additional space.  The problem is we get back to the economics of making that business plan work.

While most mainline domestic carriers offer a product with extra legroom (i.e. United Economy Plus), other international airlines offer passengers an upgraded  product, with more legroom and seat-width.  Although most people might say they would pay more for extra wiggle room, many of those seats go to mileage plan elite members or those few who are actually willing to pay a bit more.

We are back to space costing most and most passengers, when it comes down to it, are not willing to spend that extra cash.


It’s not an easy task for airlines to try and find that sweet spot of providing passengers with enough room and keeping costs low to stay competitive in an extremely competitive market.

Look at the two airlines who are doing the best in the US: Allegiant and Spirit. They both offer almost nothing for free besides a seat to sit on and some oxygen. Any additional space or weight (carry-on bag, food, heck – even water) is going to cost you.  Passengers complain about such lack of amenities and space, but the two provide some of the cheapest fares possible and are doing very well financially.

Do not forget, many airlines already offer you the option of having more room; it is called first class. Those seats will provide all that extra room you want (plus better food and service), but of course you will have to pay for it.

Now don’t get me wrong. When I am paying for my flights, I typically will got for the cheapest fare and will rarely pay more for additional room.  I also get that we all want our cake and eat it too.  But we can’t go and get angry at the airlines for running a business (they aren’t non-profits) and meeting the demands of their customers.

To circle back to the original question of, “would it kill Boeing or Airbus to add an additional foot?” It quite possibly could. If they built a product that would not make an airline money, airlines wouldn’t buy that product and it could substantially hurt an aircraft manufacturer.

If you want airlines to provide more room, then be willing to show them there is a demand – with your wallet.  Otherwise, our seats will keep getting smaller.

    David Parker Brown – Editor-in-Chief & Founder 

David started in the summer of 2008, but has had a passion for aviation since he was a kid. Born and raised in the Seattle area (where he is currently based) has surely had an influence and he couldn't imagine living anywhere else in the world.

 @ARdpb | Flickr | YouTube |

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