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CEOs Tried Flying In Their Airline’s Coach Seats And Here’s What They Had To Say About It

It’s the height of the vacation season, a time for heavenly visits to distant places – and hellish experiences flying there.

No matter how much you squirm, twist or contort, there’s no way to get comfortable for the long haul on most airlines. Seats in coach are small, and the rows offer minimal leg room. The result is a universal sense that we’ve been packed in like sardines so airline execs can fit as many, er, bums on the plane as possible.

Some folks thought these airline CEOs should try a taste of their own medicine. Because legroom in standard coach on American, Delta, and United is much less than what you get on other airlines, like Southwest and JetBlue, Wall Street Journal reporters asked the CEOs of these three airlines to sit down for a talk.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian and American CEO Doug Parker agreed to sit down for interviews with the newspaper – each in one of their airline’s coach seats. United’s Oscar Munoz refused to be to be interviewed in that fashion. (When asked why United declined to comment.)

Bastian and Parker are both 6-foot-3. Bastian settled into one of his company’s most recently reconfigured Boeing 777-200 in Atlanta. Parker cozied into his coach seat on a reconfigured 777-200 in a Dallas-Fort Worth airport hangar.

So, did the CEOs find the skimpy seating acceptable? Or at least tolerable?

Here’s the short answer: with knees almost brushing the seats in front of them, both CEOs said customers who want more room can buy it.

This answer doesn’t go over well with the flying public. Many travelers have a sneaking suspicion that airlines intentionally made coach unpleasant to force flyers to buy the extra room that once came standard.

Frustrated passenger advocates aren’t leaving the issue in the wind. Instead, there have been efforts to convince Congress to impose a federal seat size standard on airlines. Proponents of such a measure argue that tighter rows pose a serious safety threat in the event of an evacuation. So far, their efforts have been unsuccessful.

Parker and Bastian told the WSJ that they frequently fly coach — though not for those multi-hour flights that some passengers find painful.

Bastian says Delta customers and employees are impressed when they see him taking his coach seat, and he wants to understand what everyday customers experience. To get everyone on board, so to speak, Bastian last month instituted a policy that requires all Delta director-level employees and above to fly coach on trips that clock in at under three hours.

American’s Parker says he’s in coach about one of every three flights, although he typically lands there when first-class and extra-legroom seats are booked. When asked how he’d feel on a five-hour flight with seat in front of him in full recline, he said: “I feel what our customers experience. Without a doubt, this is, by design, less space than you have in cabins for our customers who desire a different product.”

But what customer desires a tiny seat and skimpy legroom?

American hasn’t “done anything that makes the main cabin product less desirable than it was before,” Parker said. He insisted that if the company’s customers make enough complaints about tight seating, American will change. But this hasn’t happened, he claims.

Right now, American’s strategy is to give passengers more seating choices – for a price. Lower fares seats are in the back, made up of 146 basic coach seats. For those willing to pay more or who have elite status, there are 66 coach seats that provide extra legroom. Shell out several hundred dollars more and you get upgraded to premium economy: 24 seats that are 19 inches wide instead of 17. Then, of course, there are the 37 business-class seats that allow passengers to lie flat and really stretch out.

It seems that sardine-style seating is here to stay unless customers make more of a ruckus about legroom. If you ask me, it’s one thing to travel in close-quarters on a trip from, say, Atlanta to New York. International flying is a much different story. For now, it seems we’d do well to budget more for travel when taking a long flight, or, perhaps, to stick to shorter trips.

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