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Spirit Is Changing Its Seating, Giving Special Attention to the Middle Seats

On its newly-delivered planes, Spirit Airlines says it’s installing new seats that are improved over the airlines’ old ones. That’s probably right, given that the old seats represent the lowest bar in the industry, but even the new seats still aren’t up to the general industry standards: Spirit’s seats have long been about an inch narrower than the average airline seat.

What’s Changing About Spirit’s Seats

Spirit’s new standard seats are still configured in the usual three-wide arrangement for its fleet of Airbus 319, 320, and 321 aircraft, and are still keeping the current industry-minimum 28-inch pitch, with no recline feature. The main differences are (1) a seat-back shape leaving more legroom at knee level, (2) improved seat-back padding, (3) the unmovable seat backs will gain an inch of recline backwards for a more comfortable seated position, and (4) middle seats will widen from the standard 17-inch width to 18 inches. Of the seat-back shape/padding and legroom, reviews by travel writers (who tried the seats at the recent Airline Passenger Experience Association expo) are generally favorable.

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You can rightly say that Spirit is widening its middle seat to entice more travelers to pick it, a rising trend that has been buzzed about for a few months now. But the airline is a bit disingenuous in hyping its wider middle seats. Spirit flies A320-family jets, and most airlines flying those jets have a minimum seat width of 18 inches throughout the cabin. Spirit originally chose to install all seats at the narrower 17-inch width to provide a wider aisle, which is useful for speeding the loading/unloading process. So by widening its middle seats to 18, but leaving the others at 17 inches, Spirit is still unnecessarily squeezing two-thirds of its passengers.

The carrier also highlights the improved knee room of the new seats. What it doesn’t highlight is whether the seats do anything to improve the waist- and shoulder-level room that travelers need to read tablets or work on laptops. A lack of recline certainly helps preserve working-level space, but I haven’t seen any reports about whether the new slightly-more-reclined position affects that space. My guess is that the new spacing above the knees is unchanged in that regard.

Big Front Seats

new spirit air seats

Spirit has also designed its first upgraded seats, dubbed “Big Front Seats,” which still don’t recline, and are available from $22 each. The seat configuration and width are comparable to most domestic first-class standards, for a lot less: There are only two per half row (rather than three), meaning there’s no middle seat. This is a great product for travelers who want outstanding room and don’t care about other typical first class features: Some aircraft nerds are calling Spirit’s new Big Front Seats the newest “best buy.”

These seats are all an improvement over the old ones. But the standard seats still leave a lot to be desired, and the worthiness of Big Front Seats depends on if you’re willing to pay for one.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

By Ed Perkins

A nationally recognized reporter, writer, and consumer advocate, Ed Perkins focuses on how travelers can find the best deals and avoid scams.

He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004), the first step-by-step guide specifically written for small business and self-employed professional travelers. He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union.

Perkins' advice for business travelers is featured on MyBusinessTravel.com, a website devoted to helping small business and self-employed professional travelers find the best value for their travel dollars.

Perkins was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, one of the country's most influential travel publications, from which he retired in 1998. He has also written for Business Traveller magazine (London).

Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America" and "This Week with David Brinkley," "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.

Before editing Consumer Reports Travel Letter, Perkins spent 25 years in travel research and consulting with assignments ranging from national tourism development strategies to the design of computer-based tourism models.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Perkins lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife.

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