The Secret Behind Southwest’s Slim Seats: Extra Legroom Seats, A Move Away From Open Seating?

Last week Southwest Airlines unveiled images of its new cabin and seats. It was striking that these seats look thin and not well padded – a genuine downgrade from the older tan seats that are still flying and even less comfortable than the seats in the 737 MAX 8 today.


Credit: Southwest Airlines


Credit: Southwest Airlines

That’s why I assumed they must be planning to squeeze more seats into each plan. They’d be getting more space out of these thinner seats, and could reduce legroom since they start offering more space between passengers in standard economy than United, Delta, or American do today. But Southwest assured they do not have plans to add more seats into each aircraft.

So why on earth would they go for thinner seats? The airline posted this video on TikTok about the seats and got absolutely roasted.

  • “Those seats are 1 ply”
  • “So we get thinner, more uncomfortable seats with a heart on it.”
  • “I’ve always wondered when airlines would start catering to people like us who enjoy relaxing on slates of granite.”
  • “Will the prices [be] going down in proportion with the reduction in cushioning”
@southwestair

New fit check! Introducing our updated cabin design and new seats! You can catch this interior on new aircraft deliveries beginning next year. Not to mention our ongoing rollout of adding bigger overhead bins and in-seat power ports to our current planes!

♬ Originalton – CENKGO

Now, as Enilria points out, those thinner seats would mean even more space between passengers so why not promote that? Instead they promoted the width of their seats “and overall support.”

There’s only one thing that would seem to square this circle.

  • They’re freeing up space in the cabin
  • But aren’t giving everybody more legroom, or increasing the number of seats
  • So some seats will get more legroom

American Airlines calls it Main Cabin Extra. Delta calls it Comfort+. United calls it Economy Plus. It’s extra legroom economy seats, that each sells for a premium and offers as a benefit to its elite frequent flyers.

Of course for Southwest to offer some kind of premium seating, they’d have to move away from open seating… at least for certain seats. They could do assigned seating in the premium section, or boarding passes that allow passengers to pick any available seat in the section they’ve purchased.

Dropping pure open seating would be a watershed moment for Southwest. But they’re looking for new ways to monetize their product, since the airline’s financials have lagged their historical top of industry place.

Yet Southwest says that’s not it. According to a Southwest Airlines spokesperson,

The pitch isn’t changing. The new seats maintain the 32” pitch we currently have on our 175-seat aircraft. In the images you’ve seen, those are renderings, so it isn’t accurate to say we are using thinner, less padded seats. We partnered with RECARO to redesign the armrest on their original seat to preserve the width offered on seats onboard Southwest. We collaborated with RECARO to custom-develop a more ergonomic cushion by using different foam technologies and densities, and adding more padding to certain areas of the headrest, backrest, and bottom cushion. The seat material selected for these new seats is not only softer to the touch, but better showcases the foam technology.

Southwest conducted multiple rounds of comfort testing with hundreds of participants, and we’re confident in the comfort and reliability these seats provide. There is nothing in the works around premium seating.

If they’re not using thinner seats to squeeze in more seats, or to create some rows with added legroom, then what possible reason could there be for choosing “1-ply” seats? These may just be “renderings” but they’re the renderings Southwest chose to release. Usually those are produced to make a product look better. Something just doesn’t add up here.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. John’s probably got it. These seats are incredibly light, Frontier claimed a 30% weight savings with these over their prior gen seat. If Southwest saves 1 lb per seat, that’s almost a full person less fuel they need per flight and could save millions per year on fuel. If all their planes got this seat, that would likely be about $10-$20m per year in less fuel, probably more considering how much heavier the 73G seats are vs 738.

  2. Let’s hope they end open seating and the rampant preboard abuse that it encourages since WN seems to not give two $h*ts about retaining the integrity of the A boarding group.

  3. The source of Enilria’s speculation as he named at the link is someone who was former head of revenue management for AirTran… hmmm…..

  4. virtually all airlines are using newer technology to reduce the weight and size of seats. Nothing should be seen because WN now does it.

    However, seat pitch is measured from the same point on a seat to the next so a slimmer seat cushion does produce more usable space.

    and the secret to any seat is to replace the cushion often enough to prevent a well from forming where people sit; any seat material only lasts so long so airlines have to replace seat cushions (not the covers which are probably more often) to keep the appearance and comfort levels.

    And it would be great if WN did eliminate a true free for all, esp. with pre-boarding. If you don’t pay to sit in the best seats, they you shouldn’t be allowed to use any excuse to sit there. Sticking all pre-boards behind the wing would do wonders to cure alot of people.

  5. Now that Southwest Airlines has made the corporate decision to downgrade to thinner one-ply seats, will they also downgrade to one-ply toilet paper in their aircraft lavatories?

  6. Give the new Recaro seats a try before knocking them. I doubt that Southwest Airlines is going down the same path as American Airlines in trying to make the experience as unpleasant as possible. Southwest has never been considered a luxury airline anyways.

  7. Can we confront this “spokesperson”? Please explain how how this seat has better cushion? Also can we call the “hundreds” of participants? or where all these the finance people at Southwest?

  8. My hope is that you will NOT do away with open seating. It’s a major perk along with the 2 free bags and the main reason I fly southwest. Right now you are my top choice. Its not broken so there is no need to fix it.

  9. With 2 free bags per person, unlimited companion free tickets, generous same day with same fare change options, changeable tickets anytime, friendly safe service….. willing to give these seats their day in court.

  10. Guys the entire reason for saving the weight in the seats was in the rendering!! Southwest has repeatedly said they weren’t going to add device charging because of the WEIGHT it would add. Now with the lighter seats they can “survive” the added weight and thus fuel that the wiring and outlets for charging will bring.

  11. Thinner seats don’t necessarily equate to less comfort. There are some very good ergonomic seats that are very comfortable and thin.
    Also, as Southwest indicates, I’d rather make sure the padding is on the seat bottom versus the back rest.

  12. I’m thinking that the seats are slimmer like memory foam vs a regular mattress. It might be a good thing. It’s happening so I guess we need to get used to it.

  13. I flew in mid December on a new jet that was on it’s first commercial flight and I’m pretty sure it already had those seats. Comfort was fine.

  14. @ Gary — Here’s hoping for the end to open seating! This would a) open up WN to lots of new customers that can’t stand the current nonsesnse, and b) increase competition with AA, DL and UA becuase of a).

    My spouse will be unhappy that I will be wiling to fly WN if they end open seating…

  15. If they’re better seats, Southwest marketing should go to a few airports with real life demos of the new seats and the old seats and record people reacting to the new seats being actually better. Then put out those viral videos and commercials, because that’s the only way I’m going to buy that those uncomfortable looking seats do anything for the passengers.

  16. This move tells me WN is looking on bringing on the MAX9.

    The new seats would allow them to put 200 or just under 200 seats on a MAX9. And they wouldn’t need to worry about the current door bolt issue, because it would require them to order the version with the fully activated exit doors.

  17. It would take ~5 years to offer a bonus legroom section at the rate these cabins get refitted. Can’t realistically market a product unavailable on most of your livery.

  18. Recaro is synonymous with thin & uncomfortable seats. Southwest needs to end open seating. Also, stick all the pre-board abusers in the last rows of the plane to stop the abuse.

  19. I’m always in the bulkhead because I’m disabled but ironically I don’t have legs so I won’t benefit from the space lol

  20. @Gary – Even if they’re adding extra legroom seats, it doesn’t mean they HAVE to do away with free-for-all seating. They could just move A1-A15 into a pre-preboards position (negating the advantage of “miracle flyers”), and charge more for the privilege. Personally, I think NW’s seating is an advantage for them, as it certainly differentiates them, and IIRC, they’re still the largest airline by domestic passenger traffic. It demonstrably hasn’t hurt them, year after year.

    With all that said, I’m concerned about the comfort of these seats. I don’t think I’m particularly picky, but there is a generation of Spirit seat I’ve used that sticks out as a bad experience in my mind, with my knees pressing hard into the rounded metal back of the seat in front of me. Spirit’s more recent seats are fine. As another commenter said, I’ll give these seats their day in court.

  21. Love this! For those not familiar with the Recaro seat, they are incredibly comfortable. The thinner seat mass gives you the extra roominess of 33 or 34 pitch in a 32 pitch format. And open seating is here to stay. The only method where you either can pick a prime spot or pick who you sit by! For us larger folks, we can find a comfortable row. Open seating is only one thing that makes LUV the best. The real secret is the Rapid Rewards program, the ONLY program that puts award seats on sale whenever the cash price goes down. And the best Companion Pass program in the sky. I find it hilarious that people think an ‘assigned seating is some kind of advantage. Think about that. Love LUV!

  22. give the seats a chance,,,I also love the fact that Southwest is open seating..also these people worried about pre boarding abuse. yes there is some on certain flights but normally the people that pre board need to and also need to be toward the front to be able to access the wheelchairs easily.

  23. Southwest has long had more legroom in certain seats than others, and not just in exits bulkheads. This sounds entirely about weight

  24. John hit on something.
    The photo that shows the back of the seats not only has a legroom, but it shows a tablet that’s plugged into something. Charging ports!?

  25. How about everyone hold of on their opinions until you have actually sat in one of their new seats ?!?!?! That would be a novel idea now wouldn’t it…..

  26. I was on a recent flight with Southwest from Houston to Costa Rica. The new Max playing with the new seat configuration I found to be very comfortable and being that i’m six foot two I head plenty of leg room. I was very happy where the new seats. I’m staying with Southwest Airlines. And will be fine back to close to rica in may.

  27. “How about everyone hold of on their opinions until you have actually sat in one of their new seats ?!?!?! That would be a novel idea now wouldn’t it…..”

    Name one airline that has replaced economy seats with something that is more comfortable.

  28. We’re all just cattle people. The Golden Age of flying has long been over. Americans are heavy wide bodies so why not treat the rest of us like cattle? It’s all about weight and fuel consumption.

  29. I book always Business Class. In flying to cities in Florida many times where I hold seats number 1 and 2 and your paying extra to board first, but last time I fly the pre boards, which more than 25 of the pre-boards waked with no problem. So instead of boarding 1 and 2 I am now the 30th person boarding. If you pay for Business Class those 15 people should be able to board first as they (Southwest) says are the first 15 to board. Why have business class if you don’t honor what your paying for.

  30. I “LOVE* the thin seats. Passengers of size permanently deform the seat bottoms and I’m constantly sliding into their far-from-seatback butt grooves which causes back pain. As long as those bulge headrests can move up, is an upgrade.

  31. Those old tan seats are miserable. Frumpy. Too warm in summer. Excessively padded. Poor back support. Like a lazy lounge chair from an old club for old men.

  32. Southwest really needs to crack down on pre boarding abuses. Of course, I have no problem with legitimate preboards, but FAR too often I stand there in the A boarding group and watch while 15-20 PERFECTLY ambulatory individuals saunter aboard with smirking faces. That is completely unfair to those of us who have paid CONSIDERABLY more for our tickets!!! While I’m on this subject, let me also say that “family boarding” needs to be delayed until EVERY passenger who has paid for an Early Bird fare has boarded!!!!

  33. I hope the new seats resist the seat cushion flattening out. I had back pain for months at work after changing positions. The previous guy had flattened the cushion. I was finally able to get an ergonomic chair that had proper cushioning. I have had the same problem on a few flights and now recognize what the problem is.

  34. I got off of a Southwest Max 8 with somewhat slim seats Sunday night. No phone holders, no power. Watching the Super Bowl was fun. I guess I shouldn’t complain because at least they had it on live TV but why no power outlets?

  35. Southwest can place the extra legroom/recline seats near the middle of the plane. Flight attendants can strongly encourage preboards to sit in the narrower first 3 rows and then stay seated until everyone else is off. Waiting for grandma to get carried to a wheelchair is extremely annoying. This would also speed up boarding as business select and Alist passengers head for the middle of the plane instead of clogging up the front.

  36. I suggest that all customers who whine can be allowed to walk, sit out on the wing or ride a mule. I’m old, arthritic, a little beat-up, but I can tolerate a little discomfort easier than I can tolerate whiney co-passengers who want to be packaged in memory foam or fly in a heated floatation tank. If you insist on absolute comfort, hire a doctor, a psychologist, and a string quartet or lullaby artist to accompany you, to keep your diaper changed and administer a drip of fentanyl for the duration of that awful flight. Be quiet, wear a smile without perfume, take a shower, brush your teeth, & mind your children’s manners. The flight will not be as long as the rode in a Conestoga Wagon, a buckboard, or a Stage Coach. Bring a travel pillow and ear plugs.

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