The seat recline button ... going, going ...
Like to push back in your airline seat? Hit that recline button and enjoy an exhilarating moment as your seat adjusts itself to a fractionally more relaxing posture? Enjoy it because that joyful sensation might be on the chopping block for economy flyers.
British Airways will fit non-reclining seats to its fleet of 35 new Airbus A320neos and A321neos, scheduled to enter service with the airline later this year. On flights up to four hours, BA's economy passengers will sit in a position described by the airline as "pre-reclined at a gentle angle", with no option to change that angle.
In one respect there is nothing radical about this. Several low-cost carriers in the region, including easyJet and Ryanair, have non-reclining seats on short-haul flights. On many airlines it is not uncommon to find a non-reclining seat in the final row immediately before the toilets. In the US, Spirit Airlines, which sets the template for low-cost carriers, ditched the seat-recline mechanism from its seats in 2009, and where Spirit goes today, other airlines tend to go tomorrow. However the BA move is a first for a non-US legacy carrier, and a finger pointed at the future of economy-class air travel.
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For BA, it's a no-brainer. For years the airline has been losing market share to low-cost carriers. Those carriers are phenomenally successful not because they prioritise passenger comfort but because they offer astonishingly low prices. Airlines have learnt that many passengers are prepared to put up with almost any level of humiliation and discomfort in return for a rock-bottom price. Non-reclining seats allow airlines to stack more bodies into their aircraft, a process known by the polite euphemism of "densification" and earn more revenue per flight.
Non-reclining seats not only cost less, maintenance is less of an issue. Seat-recline mechanisms are complicated, and they break. Non-reclining seats are also lighter, and less weight means less fuel burnt. US low-cost carrier Allegiant Air reckons the saving in fuel costs and maintenance from non-reclining seats adds about US$3.5 million ($4.4 million) per annum to its bottom line.
With its non-reclining seats, British Airways is simply taking off the kid gloves to duke it out more effectively with its low-cost competitors. Already the airline has turned off the free-meal-and-drinks tap on its short-haul routes. No surprise that BA appointed Alex Cruz, the former boss of Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling, as its chief executive in 2015.
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BA is betting passengers will adapt and embrace no-recline flying in return for lower-cost travel - just as they have to the user-pays system that applies when you fly on the cheap, known as "unbundling" in the airline business. Unbundling signifies a bare-bones flight. You're guaranteed a seat, and anything else comes with an add-on cost. Unbundling makes perfect sense to airlines since the fees they earn from checked baggage, meals, priority check-in and other ancillary services are the reason many of them fly. Spirit Airlines makes almost US$50 per passenger from ancillary fees.
For the airlines, non-reclining seats also solve a nasty problem. Seat recline is a vexed issue among flyers. The protocols of seat recline are linked with the outdated virtues of consideration for one's fellow flyers and that went out with propellers. Particularly on a short-haul flight, the passenger in front of you who hits the recline button as soon as the seat belt sign goes off is a major annoyance. According to a 2013 Skyscanner survey, 91 per cent of air travellers wanted seat recline either banned or restricted to set times on short-haul flights. Reclined seats have caused tempers to flare, fists to fly and in a few extreme cases, aircraft diverted and forced to land before their scheduled destination when cabin brawls broke out.
How long before other major carriers adopt non-reclining seats? Anywhere that legacy carriers are going head-to-head with low-cost carriers is a likely candidate, and that applies to just about every major air route the world over.