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Why Americans are less satisfied with flying

Man fastening seatbelt on airplane
Alija | Getty Images

A new survey of airline passengers finds the biggest percentage of large-size travelers live in North America. Those passengers tend to be less satisfied with their experience than those surveyed in Asia, which has the largest percentage of travelers who weigh less than 150 pounds.

The results come at a time when more airlines, especially those in North America, are packing thinner and lighter seats into tighter configurations as a way to save space and weight on their planes.

"What was surprising to us was to see that a quarter of all North American passengers are over 200 pounds," said Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, an airline industry trade association.

According to APEX's findings, 83 percent of travelers in Asia were satisfied with the airline experience, compared with 77 percent in North America. The firm, which surveyed 3,400 travelers, said European passengers had 80 percent satisfaction.

"Amazingly, the passengers are satisfied," Leader said.

"People tend to romanticize the past and say, 'Oh, the seats were more comfortable and they were bigger,'" he said. "They were made out of foam and never designed for sitting, and with cloth that captured the smell of every passenger of the past."

"Now you see much more often leather seats. You see passengers that are able to sit on slimline materials that were developed with foam by in coordination with NASA that make it much more comfortable."

But Rick Garlick, who tracks airline customer satisfaction for J.D. Power, called the notion that seat satisfaction is improving in a meaningful way "ridiculous." In fact, J.D. Power's most recent survey of fliers found just 42 percent were satisfied with the roominess of their airline seat, making it a top complaint on the firm's annual report on the flying experience.

Coach seats are, on average, 17 to 18 inches wide, though some airlines have talked of pushing suppliers to build even narrower seats. And while airlines do offer some seats with "extra" leg room, it costs more than a basic coach seat. Also, the width of those seats does not increase unless you pay to sit in business class or first class.

Still, don't expect airlines to pivot away from slimmer seats. In the airline business, lighter seats means less weight. That, in turn, means burning less fuel, and in theory, generating greater profits.

APEX's Leader said there are other ways that airlines are improving the experience for passengers, such as increasing the number of options for in-flight entertainment and adjustable arm rests.

"There are more choices now in terms of economy comfort and being able to select the seat that you desire so that you are able to have more room," he said.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the number of North American passengers who weigh more than 200 pounds. The figure was corrected by APEX after the initial version of the story was published.