Southwest Rolling Out Controversial New Seats: "Is There an Option to Stand?"
Customers were less than impressed with the airline's redesigned cabins.
If there's one airline that can be described as polarizing, it's probably Southwest. Some travelers swear by the airline's open seating policy, while others prefer to fly with carriers that allow you to pick your seat in advance. But now, the debate about how you choose your seat has somewhat fallen by the wayside, as travelers are up in arms about Southwest Airlines' new physical seats. The airline announced some controversial "upgrades" in a recent TikTok video, which showcased computer-generated images of a redesigned cabin.
"Introducing our updated cabin design and new seats!" the caption reads. "You can catch this interior on new aircraft deliveries beginning next year. Not to mention our ongoing rollout of adding bigger overhead bins and in-power ports to our current planes!"
In a Feb. 2 press release, Southwest explained that it partnered with design company Tangerine to create the updated interior, which integrates shades of blue. The new seats have the Southwest heart emblem on adjustable headrests and personal electronic device holders, per the release. Supplied by aircraft seat manufacturer RECARO, the seats are "intuitively designed…for ultimate comfort while maximizing seat width and overall support," the airline said.
However, customers had different thoughts on the seats—and they weren't exactly positive. Southwest's TikTok video was flooded with sarcastic comments, with many stating that the seats looked "smaller and thinner" than they did before.
"I didn't think it was possible to make the seats any more uncomfortable, but it looks like somehow you managed. Congratulations, I guess," one comment reads.
Another commenter was shocked that the seats were approved at all, asking, "Did y'all not do a single focus group on these?!" (In the press release, the airline did write that "Customer research and product testing" guided Southwest to collaborate with RECARO.)
Others made jokes, asking if there's "an option to just stand" or whether the airline considered wooden benches, which would "be just as comfy." Several comments compared the seats to lawn chairs, plastic pool recliners, and slabs of granite, while others said that the new chairs are akin to those on budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier.
Critics also argue that the "thinner" chairs might be rolled out to create space for more seats. "So more crowded and less comfort? Awesome," a comment reads. Another asks, "Are the cushions thinner so you could put them closer and squeeze in an extra two rows?"
Interestingly enough, Southwest (along with JetBlue) has been recognized as having the most legroom in economy seating. Back in 2015, Southwest's Chief Commercial Officer Bob Jordan also said that the airline would have the "widest economy seats available in the single-aisle 737 market," at 17.8 inches, Condé Nast Traveler reported. This set Southwest apart, as most airlines were moving to slimmer seats.
In a statement to Best Life, a spokesperson for Southwest noted that the RECARO seats "maintain the average seat width and pitch on Southwest Boeing 737 MAX 8 and -800 aircraft, and exceed the width currently available on the -700 series aircraft." (Pitch is the term used by airlines for the space between a seat and the seats in front and behind it.)
Regarding the seats themselves, the airline said that they have actually made improvements in terms of comfort.
"We collaborated with RECARO to custom-develop a more ergonomic cushion by using different foam technologies and densities, and adding more padding to certain areas of the headrest, backrest, and bottom cushion," the spokesperson said. "The seat material selected for these new seats is not only softer to the touch, but better showcases the foam technology."
The Southwest spokesperson also said that the airline did, in fact, conduct testing for the new seats.
"Southwest conducted multiple rounds of comfort testing with hundreds of participants, and we're confident in the comfort and reliability these seats provide," the statement reads. "After testing, Southwest continued to leverage RECARO's expertise in developing long-haul premium economy seats in the international market and translated those learnings and enhancements to make a custom seat unique to Southwest."
On top of general frustration with the seats, some travelers said it's enough to make them take their business elsewhere.
"You just earned yourself a Delta customer," one comment reads on the TikTok video, while another called Southwest's video "the best Delta ad I've seen."
Several commenters also wanted to know why the renovated cabins didn't include charging ports, which has been a pain point for travelers. However, the airline addressed this in the release: New 737 MAX 8 aircraft will have USB A and USB C power ports and larger overhead bins. In addition, both charging ports and larger bins will be added to existing MAX 8 and 737-800 aircraft over the next several years, Southwest said.
Best Life reached out to Southwest for comment and will update the story when we hear back.