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Former Spirit Airlines CEO Predicts Major Seat Configuration Changes for U.S. Airlines

Former CEO of Spirit Airlines predicts seat configurations in US airlines to transform due to changes in consumer behavior caused by the pandemic

by Fergus Cole

April 24, 2023

Photo: Airbus A321neo LR. Courtesy of JetBlue.

Airlines in the U.S. could soon be making changes to their aircraft seat configurations in response to changing travel trends, according to a former airline chief.

In a recent article for Forbes, Ben Baldanza, the former CEO and President of Spirit Airlines, shed light on the anticipated transformations in seat configurations across various airlines in the United States in the upcoming months. He postulated that these shifts are a consequence of the evolving travel patterns, particularly the stagnation of business travel at approximately 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels. This change in consumer behavior is expected to compel airlines to revise their business models to adapt to the emerging landscape of the travel industry.

Photo: Courtesy of Frontier Airlines

According to Baldanza, demand for leisure-based travel has strongly recovered from the pandemic. However, carriers are still struggling to make up the revenue from the dampened demand for business travel. He said that while some industry bosses are clinging to the hope that demand for corporate travel will fully recover, some key factors suggest this won’t happen.

For example, the rise of video-based conferencing during the pandemic and the surging popularity of platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams has meant that many businesses don’t see the value or need for sending employees on expensive business class flights like they used to, especially on shorter trips.

Another reason why the ubiquity of business travel may have changed forever includes the growing focus on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals, which has encouraged many businesses to attempt to reduce their carbon footprints, and cutting back on flights is one of the simplest ways to achieve this.

Photo: Airbus A321neo, Business Class cabin. Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

Rising inflation and labor costs are also forcing companies to change their strategy, while a significant number of companies now allow their employees to work from home, either on a hybrid or permanent basis. Shifting patterns in brand awareness and sustainability also mean that society no longer sees excessive travel as ‘cool’ or commendable.

All of these factors together mean that airlines should be looking at ways to adjust seat layouts on their aircraft, such as reducing the size of Business Class and First Class cabins and replacing them with more Economy or Premium Economy seats, according to Baldanza. This is the norm in Europe, where regional Business Class cabins are equipped with Economy Class seats, blocking middle seats for added privacy.

Photo: Lufthansa, regional Business Class cabin. Courtesy of reisetopia / Unsplash

The former Spirit CEO said that while many airlines had adjusted network routes and frequencies during the pandemic as a simple way to respond to rapidly changing travel demands, changing seat layouts will help carriers respond to longer-term trends. However, changing aircraft layouts is challenging and will take time, labor, and capital, especially for larger carriers such as American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines.

However, he said that while passengers should expect fewer business class seats and more economy seats on aircraft over the next year, they may also receive better service on standard fares.

“With fewer corporate travelers, airlines will likely look to downsize business class cabins but offer more premium economy options,” said Baldanza. “It also means that airlines may be more interested in improving the premium economy experience. This could mean keeping the current density but better sleeping options.”

Photo: Airbus A220-300 cabin. Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

He also suggested that reconfiguring aircraft seating layouts will help reduce airline costs, which may be passed on to consumers.

“On the big planes, elimination of any remaining first class and downsizing of business class seems inevitable,” he said. “This ultimately would result in more seats per aircraft. While being better fit to the post-pandemic demand reality, this also becomes a way to mitigate some other increases in expenses by creating more ASMs with each trip. This would help lower their unit costs.”

Baldanza suggested that while seat configuration changes will be more dramatic and noticeable with premium carriers, some low-cost carriers with minimal or no business fare options will likely not need to update their aircraft at all.