Shrinking Economy Class Seats Make First Class Even More Appealing

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seats-278-x-278Consumer Reports recently published a cover story with the eye-catching headline of “Secrets To Stress-Free Flying,” which talks about everything from scoring the lowest fare and saving on baggage fees to how the air travel industry has drastically changed over the years. It’s a great issue, and I highly recommend reading the story.

One of the changes of air travel the magazine highlights that stood out to me was how physically uncomfortable traveling has become with airlines trying to make as much money as possible. Coach seats are much smaller and more jammed together, and flights are packed. This, combined with average American waistlines expanding, make for uncomfortable flying experiences.

According to Consumer Reports, the narrowest seats on U.S. airlines are 17 inches wide (16.5 on some foreign carriers), when in 1985, the tightest seats were about 18.5 inches. But, first class seating on American, Delta, and United measures from 21 to 30 inches. If you want to fly in comfort, this alone should help you decide on using reward points to upgrade to first class, especially for long-haul flights. You don’t want to arrive at your cousin’s destination wedding in Aruba in a horrible mood from getting slammed by the reclining seat in front on you or elbowed by the snack cart (which you have to pay extra for a bag of peanuts now).


Added seats translate into added revenues. Airlines are packing more passengers into their planes.

Legroom has shrunk as much as 5 inches since 1985 – with the distance between rows (pitch, in industry parlance) only 30 inches in economy. Spirit, the airline with the lowest customer satisfaction rating by Consumer Reports, has a pitch of only 28 inches. Talk about cramped. The days of having an empty seat next to you to spread out on are gone, too. Between 1954 and 1980, flights were around 42 to 58 percent full, according to the Consumer Reports article. By 2005, flights were 78 percent full, and last year about 83 percent of seats on planes were filled.

With shrinking, cramped economy classes, upgrading to first class is more beneficial than ever. Flying doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience, and points – which you can earn just by using your credit card – let you enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

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Editorial Note: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.