How airplane cabins got to be so cramped

  • The race to more crowded cabins began in earnest after the industry was deregulated in 1978.
  • Some airlines offer seat pitch around 28 inches, down from 35 inches some 50 years ago.
  • Several lawmakers have attempted to try to set minimum dimensions for airplane seats.

It's not an optical illusion: Airplane cabins are becoming more crowded.

Over the past 40 years, airlines have cut seat pitch in order to fit more passengers on board.

That wasn't always the case.

In the early days of commercial flights, in the 1920s and even in the 1930s, airplane seats were just wicker chairs. After that the chairs were made of aluminum. They looked nothing like the airplane seats we're used to today, but more like a chair you could find in someone's home.

During an economic boom after World War II, more travelers took to the skies and manufacturers introduced larger planes with big, cushioned seats to match. There was only one class of flying. The two-class cabin came a little later, as more travelers opted to fly over taking a bus or a train.

Seat pitch, the distance between the back of one seat to the seat in front of it, was about 35 inches in the middle of the 20th century, according to Bob van der Linden, chairman of the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

The race to cut seat pitch began in earnest after the U.S. deregulated the industry in 1978.

While the smoke-filled cabins of the 1960s and 1970s were certainly roomier, air travel was very expensive. When they were regulated, the U.S. government set airfares. A transcontinental flight cost more than $1,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars in the mid-1970s, while travelers could find tickets for around $300 for the same route today. Airlines back then, however, did not charge for checked luggage, seat selection, or myriad other add-ons they do today.

After deregulation in 1978 airlines competed on price, so more and more passengers were stuffed into planes.

The industry rode through boom and bust cycles, faced bankruptcies and consolidated, leaving four airlines in control of some three-quarters of the U.S. market.

In the 1980s, seat pitch was more than 33 inches, by the 2000s seats had 32-33 inches of pitch and today they're at about 31 inches, according to SeatGuru.

Some budget airlines offer less than that. Spirit's seat pitch, for example, is about 28 inches, among the lowest in the industry. Spirit has seats that don't recline, and the airline has argued the seat design makes the seat feel like more than 28 inches of room. Other airlines are opting for slimline seats too that forgo seat-back entertainment systems on some routes.

Marlene Awaad | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In addition to less pitch, there are more seats on board than ever. Airlines are scrambling to capitalize on record demand with more crowded cabins.

JetBlue for example, is retrofitting some of its Airbus A320s, taking them from 150 seats to 162. American Airlines is bumping jets that had 181 or 187 seats up to 190, and jets with 160 seats up to 172.

Lawmakers have attempted several times to set minimums on airplane seat dimensions, but have so far not succeeded in getting it into law. Last summer, an appeals court panel said the Federal Aviation Administration must reconsider whether to regulate seat size and spacing for safety reasons. One of the judges wrote in her ruling that it was "the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat."