Can Airline Seats Get Smaller? A Pricing Perspective

airline seats

I can’t believe how tight airplane seats are. They keep on reducing our legroom. It’s ridiculous how small these things are now. And I’m not the only one. Everyone complains about the lack of legroom.

However, believe it or not, we ask for less legroom. Not directly, but with our choices. When people choose which ticket to purchase, they typically find all of the flights that will get them to their destination at a reasonable date and time. And then they buy the cheapest one. Notice legroom didn’t make the list of what they consider.

Admittedly some people do care more about legroom. Many airlines now have 3 classes of fares in domestic travel: First class, front of coach and back of coach. It costs more to sit in the front of coach than in the rear of coach and the only real difference is a few inches of legroom. For example, USAir charges an additional $49 for the extra legroom.

Yes, some people purchase the legroom, but if you watch the way plane seats sell out, the back of the plane sells out before the front of the plane. (Yes, I spend too much time looking at seating charts for airlines.)

Put yourself in the airlines shoes. Their customers constantly complain about the legroom, but most often choose less legroom (lower price) when making a purchase. What do you do? Airlines are simply giving us what we want, lower priced seats at the expense of legroom.

Here is an interesting article by YouGov summarizing a survey done about how we make airline purchase decisions. This is my favorite paragraph:
“42% of Americans who have flown said that they would be likely to purchase an “Economy Minus” ticket offering lower prices for reduced legroom. 15% said that they were very likely to purchase smaller cheaper seats. Women are more likely than men to consider downgrading to a smaller seat (47% compared to 37%) and Millennials (51%) are more likely than those aged 50+ (32%).”

42% would take even less legroom that they get today for a better price. If this is true, why wouldn’t airlines continue to shrink their legroom? We are asking for it.

What pricing lesson can we learn from this? Sometimes our customers complain with their mouth, but they don’t “complain” with their wallet. It’s important for pricing people to be real clear on how customers make their purchase decisions and what role price plays in that decision. We can listen to what people say, but we have to study what they do.