Southwest's massive seating change leads to a lot of questions

Southwest Airlines offers a premium experience at value pricing.That’s not really how the airline markets itself, but that’s the reality. Southwest provides more comfortable seats with more legroom than United, Delta, American, and other premium airlines offer.The comfort part, of course, may be a bit subjective, but Southwest Airlines (LUV) offers well-padded seats with ample (by airline standards) legroom. That benefit gets lost a bit because the airline does not assign seats but, instead, has a polarizing open-boarding policy. But the reality is that Southwest has always made reasonable efforts not to skimp on passenger amenities.Related: Delta, Southwest and United Airlines make unpopular seating decisionAnd that’s valuable, as anyone who has flown Spirit or Frontier knows. Those value airlines use hard plastic seats designed to weigh less to save on fuel.In theory, offering unpadded seats enables those airlines to save money, which gets passed on to customers in the form of low fares. That’s cold comfort, however, for passengers stuck spending two to five hours sitting on unforgiving chairs with limited legroom so the airline can cram as many seats onto its planes as possible.Southwest’s history as a passenger-friendly airline has come into question, after the company released artist renderings of its new seats, which look a lot closer to what Spirit and Frontier offer than its current seats.

Southwest does not offer first class or any special seating. Image source: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Southwest is changing its seatsSouthwest does not offer different tiers of seating. Passengers can pay extra to get on the plane first, which gives them their choice of seats, but aside from the exit rows, which have a little more legroom, all the seats are the same.View From the Wing’s Gary Leff says the new seats might be a step toward changing that, and he expressed surprise at what the airline has described about its new seats.”It was striking that these seats look thin and not well padded – a genuine downgrade from the older tan seats that are still flying and even less comfortable than the seats in the 737 Max 8 today,” he wrote. Leff suggested that the thinner seats could be a way for the airline to add more seats to its planes. That would be an easy way to increase revenue, but Southwest has publicly said that’s not the plan. Will Southwest add premium seating? In theory, thinner seats could also allow Southwest to add some premium seating with added legroom. Both Spirit and Frontier Airlines, neither of which offers business- or first-class seats, do sell some larger seats and some with added legroom.Leff suggested that the new seats could be Southwest at least partly moving away from its open-boarding policy. The airline, however, has insisted that it does not plan to change its seat pitch — the distance between seats — on its planes.”The pitch isn’t changing. The new seats maintain the 32” pitch we currently have on our 175-seat aircraft. In the images you’ve seen, those are renderings. So, it isn’t accurate to say we are using thinner, less padded seats,” a Southwest spokesperson said.That creates a bit of a mystery, as the thinner seats will create added space on the plane. Even if those seats are not less comfortable than the current ones (something the airline insists is the case), they are thinner. And that means that if the airline isn’t adding seats or changing the pitch, it has some unaccounted-for added space.”Something doesn’t add up here,” Leff said. There seems to be another piece to this puzzle that Southwest has decided it’s not ready to discuss publicly. That won’t be higher-priced seats, according to the airline. “There is nothing in the works around premium seating,” the airline added.Related: Veteran fund manager picks favorite stocks for 2024

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