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Cramped airline seats raise fuel efficiency but lower comfort

Airlines are improving fuel efficiency by squeezing more passengers into cabins, according to a new study. Above, passengers prepare for takeoff on a Southwest Airlines flight from San Diego's Lindbergh Field.

Airlines are improving fuel efficiency by squeezing more passengers into cabins, according to a new study. Above, passengers prepare for takeoff on a Southwest Airlines flight from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field.

(Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images)

If you are crammed into a shrinking airline seat in a cabin in which passengers are packed sardine-style, it might be comforting to know that, at the very least, you are helping the environment.

The nation’s airlines have gradually improved fuel efficiency rates on a passenger-per-mile basis, according to an annual study that gives credit to the airline trend of increasingly squeezing more passengers per plane.

The bad news: Passenger comfort has been sacrificed for fuel efficiency, according to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit group that researches and promotes clean transportation efforts.

“These changes, which allow airlines to move the same number of passengers on fewer flights, translate to increased fuel efficiency but at the cost of reduced passenger comfort and access,” the study concluded.

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From 2011 to 2012, the amount of fuel it took to transport a passenger one mile improved about 2%, partly because of improved technology in newer aircraft, according to the study. Fuel efficiency remained flat between 2012 and 2013 but began to improve between 2013 and 2014 as airlines began to squeeze in even more passengers, the study said.

The average domestic flight in the U.S. carried 145 seats in 2010, but by 2014 that number rose to 150 seats, according to the nonprofit group.

The squeeze is expected to continue. The average wide-body plane will grow by about 20 seats over the next 20 years while the average single-aisle plane will grow by about 10 seats, according to aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co.

To read more about travel, tourism and the airline industry, follow me on Twitter at @hugomartin.


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