Airline passengers may not be growing slimmer, but their seats are, and that’s good news for SeaTac-based Alaska Airlines.
The airline says it plans to spend $100 million on replacing the seats in about 75 percent of its fleet over the next two years with slimmer seats that will allow the airline to carry more passengers on its planes without decreasing their legroom.
Those additional seats — six on its 737-800 aircraft and nine more on its 737-900 planes — will increase the airline’s seat count by 475 total, giving the airline more tickets to sell without buying any more new planes. Those 475 seats are about equal to the capacity of three Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
The seats, produced by European seat-maker Recaro, are still the same width side to side as the old seats, but the cushioning is less, saving space aboard the planes. Alaska ordered the new, slimmer seats on its 737-900ERS that it is receiving from Boeing, and passenger feedback has been good.
Alaska CEO Brad Tilden told analysts recently that the new seats will lower per passenger costs by 2 percent and generate additional revenue. The airline calculates the $100 million acquisition and installation cost will be earned back in as little as two years.
The new seats save knee room by moving the document pocket from the bottom of the seat to an area above the tray table. A bonus for passengers, said Tilden will be the installation of 110-volt plugs and USB connections in every seat for laptops, tablets and other electronic devices.
The planes also will be retrofitted with a wireless entertainment system that can beam movies, shows and other features to individual electronic devices. The planes are already equipped with wi-fi, but the new system will make additional entertainment options available to passengers beyond those they may find on the Internet.
Alaska is not the only airline that is using slimmer seats to create more revenues. United, Spirit and Southwest are also installing slimline seats. Recaro initially developed the more svelte seats at the behest of the German airline Lufthansa.
Over the last 15 years airlines have been working hard to squeeze more revenue out of the finite space aboard their aircraft. Alaska developed a lighter and narrow beverage cart to cut weight.
And some European low-cost airlines have taken even more radical measures. Ireland’s Ryan Air eliminated the sliding window shades and magazine pockets entirely. And some Asian low cost carriers have reduced the seat pitch, the distance between seats to as low as 29 inches. Alaska said its new seats to retain the existing 31 or 32-inch seating pitch.
Some seating manufacturers have even produced stand-room-only sections for short flights. No airline has yet ordered that option, and no regulatory authority has approved the arrangement.