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Some feel squeezed as airlines add seats

Southwest technicians installed skinnier seats on a 737 at the carrier’s Dallas headquarters. The airline said passengers will have the same amount of legroom.

John Mone/Associated Press

Southwest technicians installed skinnier seats on a 737 at the carrier’s Dallas headquarters. The airline said passengers will have the same amount of legroom.

It’s not your imagination. There really is a tighter squeeze on many planes.

The big US airlines are taking out bulky old seats in favor of so-called slimline models that take up less space from front to back, allowing for five or six more seats on each plane.

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The changes give the airlines two of their favorite things: more paying passengers and a smaller fuel bill, because the seats are slightly lighter.

It’s part of a trend to view seats as money-makers, not just furniture. Add a few inches of legroom, and charge more for tickets. Take away a few inches, and fit more seats on the plane.

Some passengers seem to mind more than others.

The new seats generally have thinner padding. And new layouts on some planes have made the aisles slightly narrower, meaning that the dreaded beverage cart bump happens more often.

This is all going on in as airlines spend heavily to add better premium seats in the front of the plane.

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Whether the new coach seats are really closer together depends on how you measure. By the usual measure, called ‘‘pitch,’’ the new ones are an inch closer together from front to back, measured at the armrest.

Airlines say you won’t notice. The seats going onto Southwest’s 737s have thinner seatback magazine pockets. Passengers on Alaska Airlines will find slightly smaller tray tables. United’s new seats put the magazine pocket above the tray table, away from knees. And seat makers saved space with lighter frames and padding.

This allows airlines to passengers have as much above-the-knee ‘‘personal space’’ as before, even if seats are slightly closer together below the knee.

New seats for United Airlines Airbus A320s are an inch closer together from front to back. New seats Southwest has put on nearly its entire fleet are 31 inches apart, about an inch less than before. Both airlines were able to add an extra row of six seats to each plane.

United says new seats make each A320 about 1,200 pounds lighter. Southwest says the weight savings is cutting about $10 million per year in fuel spending. Extra seats allow Southwest to expand flying capacity 4 percent without adding any planes.

At 6-foot-3, Mike Lindsey of Lake Elsinore, Calif., doesn’t have an inch to spare. He has flown on Southwest several times since it installed the new seats. ‘‘It’s very uncomfortable on anything longer than an hour,” he said.

Delta Air Lines has added slimline seats to about one-third of its fleet. ‘‘Increasing density is a priority for us from the perspective of maximizing revenue, but the slimline seats are great because they allow us to do that without sacrificing customers’ comfort,’’ said Michael Henny, Delta’s director of customer experience.

Today’s coach seats are a response to customer demand for cheap fares despite higher fuel prices, said Vern Alg, a consultant for the Aircraft Interiors Expo.

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