Crammed Airplane Seating Just Got Worse

If you didn’t think flying could get any more uncomfortable than it already is, brace yourself, because a Russian airline is set to take the title for cramming the most seats on any commercial jet in the world.

Transaero Airlines is preparing to outfit its fleet of A380s and says it will furnish the planes with 652 seats across three different service classes — although naturally the vast majority of the seats (616 to be precise) will be dedicated to the economy class section of the plane. To give you a comparison, most other A380s are outfitted with 470-520 seats, so the Russian carrier’s plans represent a pretty significant step up in capacity.And while a body-constricting, knee-knocking, claustrophobia-inducing experience might be tolerable on a short domestic flight, the bad news is that these sardine-can-in-the-sky planes will be flying long haul. Some of the routes being proposed by Transaero include Moscow-Thailand and Moscow-Dominican Republic. But even domestic flights can be long haul when you’re talking about a country as large as Russia. One of the routes on the table includes Vladivostok to Moscow which clocks in at 4,000 miles. That’s a heck of a long distance to be squished up between 651 other weary fliers.

What do you think? Is airplane seating getting out of control?

Airline Fees: You Get What You Pay For Or Weapons In Travel Class Warfare?

Last month, the media was abuzz over increased airline fees for pre-assigned seating, with many concerned that it would especially affect families who want to sit together for no additional cost. Even New York Senator Chuck Schumer got involved, asking airlines to waive fees for families traveling with children. Rather than look for victims or call airlines “anti-family,” however, look at the bigger picture. Airline seat fees are nothing new, but they are increasingly being used as another weapon in the arsenal against the airlines’ least desirable customer: the infrequent flier. If travelers will choose airfares based on a difference of nickels and dimes, does this force the airlines to nickel and dime the traveler?

The real divide in travel now isn’t between business and leisure travelers, families and singles, or even first class and coach; it’s between frequent fliers with airline loyalty, and price-conscious consumers who won’t hesitate to switch carriers for a cheaper fare. Savvy travelers who fly more than a few times per year understand that it pays to be loyal to one airline. In addition to earning miles for future trips, frequent fliers can jump to the top of upgrade lists, skip long check-in and security lines, and even waive many of the fees not included in the base fare. Travelers who fly only a year or less are more likely to book the cheapest ticket they find, even if the difference between carriers is just a few dollars, assuming the service will be similar (or worse, the same as they remember the last time they flew). What’s the incentive for airlines to give such passengers anything for free if they might never fly them again? “The customers that are more loyal, who fly more often, we want to make sure they have the best travel experience,” said American Airlines to Associated Press.

People are quick to call airlines greedy, and while they are looking to make money, running an airline is hardly a lucrative business these days. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a nifty graphic breaking down the cost of an average flight, showing that on a 100-person flight, the airline is making a profit off only a single seat. Between the rising costs of fuel, staff, security, insurance, and maintenance, most airlines are struggling to avoid bankruptcy or just stay in business. While you shouldn’t feel sorry for the airlines, understand that the alternative to fees is increased base fares, where you may be stuck paying for amenities you don’t need or want.As I’ve lived abroad for two years, I’ve become loyal to Turkish Airlines. They not only have the most flights from my current home airport in Istanbul, but I know I’ll always get a meal even on short flights, never have to pay fees outside of excess baggage, and even be able to use a dedicated check-in desk for travelers with children at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. I’ve often paid more to fly on Turkish Airlines than other carriers on the same route to guarantee the same standards of service. This makes me a valuable customer, and the more money I spend with them, the more perks I receive.

Earlier this year, I was looking for tickets from New York to Austin for a friend’s wedding. It was slightly cheaper to fly on American Airlines (my preferred carrier when I lived in New York) than Jet Blue, but as a solo traveler with a baby, I knew I’d be checking a bag and wanting to take my stroller up to the gate. Jet Blue would offer these services for free (American wouldn’t let me gate-check the stroller, but I could check it at the counter for free), and the overall cost would be about the same, plus I’d get free snacks and entertainment. In the end, I chose Jet Blue and was even given a priority seat without charge because the flight was relatively empty. If I were still based in New York and flying frequently, it would be more worthwhile to me to fly American to build my frequent flier status and miles for places I’d like to go.

As a parent who travels frequently with my child, I understand the potential nightmare separate seating could cause, but I also understand that airlines can’t make exceptions without making some passengers unhappy. If airlines were to waive a seating charge for families, travelers would complain about special treatment. Fliers with elderly parents would ask for exemptions to sit together, people with a fear of flying would want their travel partner close with no fee, and single travelers would feel they were being forced to subsidize everyone else.

Over at Huffington Post, my colleague (and fellow baby travel expert) Corinne McDermott contacted all of the major airlines regarding pre-assigned seating fees. Only Spirit Airlines explicitly said families should pay fees to be guaranteed adjacent seats. In fact, much of the hype about families being separated might really just be that: hype. Most airlines will try to accommodate people traveling together, just reserving preferred aisle and window seats to reward frequent fliers, or sell for an additional fee. It makes sense for an airline to offer a premium like preferred seating for free to a loyal customer, and instead try to make as much money as possible for a customer they may never have again.

Instead of spending time writing angry comments online, spend that time educating yourself about the full cost of an airline ticket and decide where your priorities lie: do you want to pay the absolute lowest fare and expect nothing more than a seat, or do you want to pay for service instead surprise fees? The old axiom “you get what you pay for” is the new reality in airline travel.

ANA launches “Inspiration of Japan” luxury in-flight experience

With the new motto “Inspiration of Japan,” Japanese carrier ANA (aka All Nippon Airways) is launching a new luxury flight experience, the like of which we’ve never seen.

When one thinks of Japanese hotels, supreme convenience comes to mind — the curtains on a switch by the bed, everything from dramatic lighting schemes to room service controlled by a touchscreen panel — and ANA is bringing that personal accommodation and comfort to flying with their seating.

In the video above, I’ll give you a tour of the various seating classes, including Japan’s first 180° reclining Business Class seats. With the new floor plan, all seats in Business and First Class are aisle seats. The plane will also be equipped with the world’s first in-flight rice steamer, designed exclusively for ANA, guaranteeing the freshest rice you’ve ever had at 30,000 feet.

I chatted briefly with Gary Weiss, ANA’s Director of Market Development about the changes.

Gadling: What’s the philosophy behind these new developments?

Gary Weiss: This is a long-range investment. A lot of carriers are re-trenching; cutting capacity and cutting corners. We decided to just go for it. 2010 represents a great opportunity, with the opening up of more slots at Narita and Haneda. If we don’t do it now, we’ll probably never do it, so we decided, “Let’s hedge our bets, get the best product in the sky going, and we should be able to retain a good yield.”

G: So, rather than cutting corners, you’re making your brand more luxurious?GW: Correct.

G: Is that in response to the economy?

GW: No, this has actually been in research in development since prior to September ’08. It was a good seven, ten year plan. We wanted to be first with some of these luxurious, innovative products — and I’m glad that we have the guts to take the risk.

G: How do these changes translate to your rock-bottom, Economy Class passengers?

GW: It’s the same idea. We actually made it bigger and better. There’s three more inches of seat pitch, the distance between the rows. That intrusive seat back doesn’t come into your face anymore — your neighbor in front of you won’t hit you in the head or close your laptop.

The first flights to include these new features will be the Narita-New York route on the new Boeing 777-300ER, commencing in February 2010. Keep an eye on the ANA SkyWeb for more updates.

New airplane seating proposed: sideways

First, the next big idea was standing flights. Now, it’s sitting sideways on flights.

(Are we looking at zero-gravity flights next, so seating assignments will be totally defunct?)

The British design firm Design Q has just unveiled its proposed plan for high-density airplane seating, with inward-facing seating along the windows of the plane, and a row of back-to-back seats down the middle that face outward. The design would be for short-distance flights, rather than international flights.

Somehow, I’m not sure that this potential seating arrangement will really (ahem) take off. The aisle basically got eliminated, so there’s not much of a path to the bathroom and definitely not room for a beverage cart (maybe all eating will be eliminated in this futuristic plane). The idea of taking off and landing while sideways isn’t that appealing to me–though I know that’s what military planes do all the time. Maybe the designers forgot the overhead bins–they’re not in the design. Then again, maybe it’s all a part of the plan to keep passengers in their seats and cut every potential cost. At the end of the day, I doubt passengers would intentionally choose this over the status quo.

You might not know it, but you’ve already seen some previous work by Design Q, including the Upper Class seating for Virgin Atlantic and a redesign of all classes at Cathay Pacific.

[Thanks, Runway Girl]

Middle seat: where else would you want to be?

We all hate the middle seat … but how much? According to a survey commissioned by 3M, 56 percent of respondents would rather sit in traffic than a middle seat, with the same amount preferring a blind date (at least the getaway is easier). For 54 percent, a trip to the dentist is preferable. To avoid a middle seat, half said they’d take a later flight to avoid a middle seat, with 20 percent willing to spend a night in an airport hotel instead of spending a few hours crammed between two other passengers.

So, what bugs us about the middle seat? Everything, it seems. A hefty 84 percent didn’t want a nosy neighbor engaging in over-the-shoulder reading, with 83 percent lamenting the inability to stretch and the fact that they have to climb over someone to get to the lav. Then, of course, the “overweight” issue came up. Eighty percent feared being sandwiched between two large passengers. Finally, 71 percent don’t like the middle seat because there’s nowhere to rest your head.

Fortunately, being booked in a middle seat doesn’t have to mean that that’s where you’ll wind up. MSNBC was kind enough to offer a few tips:

1. Try to get out of it: start a communication campaign with the airline. Start a few days before your flight to see if there’s anything better (including an affordable upgrade). Check in 24 hours in advance (the earliest for most airlines), and try to change your seat. And, ask at the check-in counter. Finally, if you’re out of options, try the gate. Be polite and first in line, as both make a difference.

2. Look for a “2-3-2”: planes that have two seats, an aisle, three seats, an aisle and two seats only have one middle seat per aisle. Planes that are “3 & 3” have two middle seats per aisle. Do the math.

3. Move before your neighbor gets busy: if you need to get to the lav, fetch something from your overhead bin (putting a bag up there lets you put your feet under the seat in front of you) or anything else, do it early. Once the aisle seat dweller pops open his laptop or shuts his eyes, everything becomes a project.

Need more ideas?