Budget airline Volaris considers seats that don't recline to cut costs

Key Points
  • Volaris posted a roughly $30 million net loss in 2017.
  • The budget airline is thinking about how to keep costs down.
  • Reclining seats add to weight and maintenance costs.
A plane of Mexico's Volaris airlines approaches Benito Juarez International Airport on January 17, 2018.
Alfredo Estrella | AFP | Getty Images

Mexican budget airline Volaris has a big decision to make: Should seats on its airplanes recline?

The airline is set to receive dozens of new narrow-body Airbus jets over the next six years. It expects its fleet to grow to 124 planes by 2026, up from the 71 aircraft it operated at the end of last year, according to a company presentation.

"If we do it, we will do it all across the fleet," Volaris's CEO and founder Enrique Beltranena told CNBC.

The airline is trying to keep a lid on costs as it plots an expansion. The plans include new service such as New York to San Salvador, which it aims to launch next month, and a new partnership with sister U.S. carrier Frontier Airlines, with whom it shares an investor.

Rising costs for fuel and other expenses are a challenge for airlines, particularly for Volaris, which posted a net loss of around $30 million last year amid higher costs and struggles with demand. The airline, however, has been increasing its market share in Mexico. It estimates its share rose to 28 percent last year from 20 percent in 2012, behind only Aeromexico.

So why would scrapping reclining airplane seats save an airline money? Seats that recline have additional machinery inside them that adds to aircraft's weight, and more weight means more fuel.

Airlines are constantly looking for ways to reduce weight on board. United Airlines recently started printing its in-flight magazine, Hemispheres, on different paper that makes it an ounce lighter. It estimates the savings at $290,000 a year. United also removed duty-free products on board to save even more: $2.3 million, according to a company note.

Seats that the aviation industry often refers to as "pre-reclined" can save money in other ways, too.

A reclining seat is "one more thing to break ... and then you can't sell it," said Samuel Engel, who leads the aviation group at consulting firm ICF.

British Airways earlier this year said it would reconfigure some of its single-aisle airplanes to feature economy seats that "will be pre-reclined at a comfortable angle."

There may be another benefit.

"This also has the benefit of helping to preserve space for the customer in the seat behind," a British Airways spokeswoman said.

Other ultra-low-cost airlines, such as Allegiant and Spirit, have opted for such seats as well.

Engel, a frequent business traveler, said travelers might even appreciate the seats more than the ones that do recline.

"I'm not convinced it's such an awful thing," he said.

Beltranena and his team have to contend with airline travelers who might be accustomed to reclining seats on buses. Volaris carried 16.4 million people last year, 1.3 million of them first-time flyers. More than a fifth of them considered traveling by bus, according to the company.

The airline is also trying to drum up more revenue through fees, which it charges for everything from baggage to seat selection. It even has an option for pet hotels for those vacationers escaping Mexico City for a long weekend, he said.

When it comes to picking seats for the new planes, however, Beltranena knows he has to strike a balance. "It has to be comfortable," he said.