Airlines to tempt travelers with wider seats

Airlines to tempt travelers with wider seats

Airbus offers two extra inches for overweight passengers, and one Asian airline launches the world's widest first class seats

Many airlines advise larger passengers who can't comfortably fit into a single seat to buy two. The biggest complaint among air travelers used to concern legroom. As in, there was never enough of it. 

Passengers cried out for more space to stretch out and recline further. 

In response, airlines reconfigured their planes to offer options like premium economy, allowing travelers to pay extra for added legroom without having to upgrade to business or first class. 

Now, it appears the focus has switched from length to width. 

Perhaps acknowledging the global expansion of waistlines, Airbus is giving airlines purchasing its new A320 passenger jet the option of adding extra-wide seats for large passengers.

The European firm says two 20-inch seats could sit on either side of the A320's single aisle, in addition to three regular 18-inch seats.

"The idea behind the 'extra wide seat' is to be able offer a significant extra width to passengers who want it and are prepared to pay for it," says Martin Fendt, press manager for Airbus.

"This could be a source of ancillary revenue for airlines in the same way that extra pitch, seat allocation, or other upgrades generate ancillary revenue for many airlines today. Unlike offering extra pitch, airlines can sell the extra comfort of the extra wide seat without reducing the number of seats in the aircraft." 

No word yet on pricing, as it will be up to the individual airlines to decide how much those extra two inches should cost.

So far, only airlines in the United States have expressed an interest in the wider economy class seats, though Fendt says the company expects that will change, "as we have had positive reactions from a variety of A320 operators around the world."

Peter Miller, director of marketing for Skytrax Group -- famed for its intensive airline research and annual "World's Best Airline" awards -- says the emphasis for wider seats in economy class is mostly restricted to the United States at present, "and of course is demographically related to the scale of obesity and general passenger sizes in that market." 

"If an airline can offer some amenity with the wider seat option, it will help to overcome the problems they have faced with asking some customers to purchase two seats to sit comfortably on a flight," he said.

But Airbus stresses the seats aren’t just targeted at overweight passengers.

"Mothers with children may be ready to pay a little more in order to be able to keep their babies in their lap, and large football players may be interested,” Airbus aircraft interiors director Zuzana Hrnkova told reporters during a recent press conference. 

"The world is getting fatter"

Size is certainly a sensitive issue, one that divides travelers almost as equally as discussions surrounding flying with children.

In a recent United Kingdom survey by travel website HolidayExtras.com, nearly half of the British travelers that responded felt that if passengers have to pay for excess luggage weight, so should those carrying excess body weight.

"The idea behind the extra wide seat is to be able offer a significant extra width to passengers who want it and are prepared to pay for it," says Airbus. James Lewis of HolidayExtras.com commented on the results: "The world is getting fatter –- and this is becoming a big issue.

"Being an overweight passenger affects your traveling companions, physically and financially. If we have to pay extra for excess baggage, it’s only fair that we pay extra for excessive body weight."

For now though, there's not really a single set of guidelines for airlines when dealing with passengers who require extra room.

As Miller noted, some advise passengers of size to buy an additional seat if they are unable to fit into a single airline seat with both armrests down and fasten their seatbelt with an extender. 

In theory, the wider Airbus aisle seats will give some passengers an option that will save both embarrassment and the added expense of purchasing an additional seat. 

"Demand is yet to be seen, but I guess with a growing problem in this area, airlines can justify a price increase on such seats -- on the basis they can make it cheaper than having to buy two seats," says Miller.  

Bigger than a single mattress 

Wider seats are making their way up to first class as well. Unable to make their flat beds any flatter, airlines are now fighting to differentiate themselves from the competition by offering other comforts, like more elbow room.

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"Seat comfort is always high on the priority list of choice for customers -- not just in economy but also the quality of seating in business and first class, this applied to long-haul rather than short-haul where we all seem prepared to forego seat comfort just for a cheaper ticket," says Miller.

Leading the way is Malaysia Airlines.

Already winning fans with its plan for a kid-free upper economy deck on its first A380 service -- a non-stop flight between Kuala Lumpur and London that takes off this July -- the airline will also offer the world’s widest airplane seats on that route. 

First class passengers on the A380 will get more space than a single-bed mattress, points out Bloomberg, with seats measuring 40 inches by 87 inches. 

These dimensions give it a five-inch lead over Singapore Airlines. 

A round-trip flight from Kuala Lumpur to London sitting in one of Malaysia Airline's super-wide seats -- which also come with a personal closet and stowage space big enough to fit a coat, luggage, laptop and other belongings -- will cost about US$9,000. 

Would you pay extra for a wider airplane seat? Share your thoughts in the comments box below.

Karla is a digital producer with CNN Travel based in Bangkok, Thailand. 

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