NEW YORK — Flying coach can be a bruising experience these days.
Rory Rowland said he was rudely rebuffed after he asked the person in front of him not to recline his seat on a red-eye flight. When he later got up to use the bathroom, and the other passenger had fallen asleep, “I hip-checked his seat like you wouldn’t believe,” Rowland, a speaker and consultant, said, then feigned innocence when the enraged passenger complained to a flight attendant.
With air travelers increasingly feeling like packed sardines, flying has become a contact sport, nowhere more than over the reclined seat.
Now, it’s only getting worse, as airlines reexamine every millimeter of the cabin.
Over the last two decades, the space between seats — hardly roomy before — has fallen by about 10 percent, from 34 inches to somewhere between 30 and 32 inches. Today, some airlines are pushing it even further, leaving only a knee-crunching 28 inches.
To gain a little more space, airlines are turning to a new generation of seats that use lighter materials and less padding, moving the magazine pocket above the tray table and even reducing or eliminating the recline in seats. Some are even reducing the number of galleys and bathrooms.
Southwest, the largest domestic carrier, is installing seats with less cushion and thinner materials — a svelte model known in the business as slim-line. It is also reducing the maximum recline to 2 inches from 3. These new seats allow Southwest to add another row, or six seats, to every flight — and add $200 million a year in newfound revenue.
“In today’s environment, the goal is to fit as many seats in the cabin as possible,” said Tom Plant, general manager for seating products at B/E Aerospace, one of the top airplane seat makers. “We would all like more space on an aircraft, but we all like a competitive ticket price.”
Some carriers are taking the smush to new heights.
Spirit Airlines, for instance, uses seats on some flights with the backrest permanently set back 3 inches. Call it, as Spirit does, “prereclined.”
The low-cost airline started installing the seats in 2010, squeezing passengers into an industry low of 28 inches. While the Airbus A320 typically accommodates 150 passengers in coach, Spirit can pack in 178.
And that’s a good thing, Spirit says.
“Customers appreciate the fact that there is no longer interference from the seat in front of you moving up and down throughout the flight,” said Misty Pinson, a spokeswoman for Spirit.
Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, said the airline business had changed in recent years, since airlines parked older planes and started flying with fewer empty seats. In the past five years, he said, carriers have cut capacity — the number of seats they fly — about 12 percent.
“The flip side is they can’t afford not to fill up their seats,” Seaney said. “This is a massive sea change.”
Smaller seats are not the only reason passengers feel more constricted these days. Travelers are also getting bigger. In the last four decades, the average American has gained a little more than 20 pounds and his or her waist has expanded by about 2.5 inches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The dimensions of airplanes, however, have not changed, and neither has the average width of a coach seat, which is 17 to 18 inches.
As the cabins grow more crowded, airlines say they are thinking only of their customers, trying to keep costs down.
Jude Bricker, senior vice president at Allegiant, said the airline’s nonreclining seats have fewer moving parts and so require less maintenance, which means lower costs. This allows the airline to keep its fares low, he said.