WASHINGTON -- When two United Airlines passengers did battle this week over legroom, they touched a nerve among cramped passengers everywhere.
Fliers aren't imagining it: Airliners across the country have pushed for years for denser, more lucrative cabins -- and jet makers are unveiling innovative new ways to cram more passengers into shrinking seats.
The average short-haul passenger aboard a U.S. airliner gets 32 inches of "seat pitch," an industry term for the space between rows, an analysis of data from travel compendium SeatGuru show. But 11 of the 13 biggest U.S. airliners run short-haul flights with even less legroom, and some allow much less. Spirit Airlines offers the smallest space between rows, at 28 inches, about the size of a computer monitor.
JetBlue Airways and Virgin America now provide the roomiest arrangements, with an economy-row average of about 35 inches. But even those jetliners aren't opposed to shrinking fliers' space. When JetBlue announced it would double the number of "Even More Space" seats on its Embraer E-190 fleet, it stole away the roominess from other coach seats.
Cramping matters even further, Spirit and fellow budget airline Allegiant Air have removed the reclining features from their seats, locking seat backs eternally upright. (In the tradition of corporate euphemisms, Spirit calls the seats "pre-reclined.")
"It's one of the most unmistakable trends over the past number of years: densification," said Seth Kaplan, an analyst for Airline Weekly, an industry publication. "And it's accelerated with the fact that flights are much fuller than they used to be. Back in the days when flights were two-thirds full, who cared how many seats were onboard?"
The space between seats has fallen from around 33 to 34 inches before 2001 to around 30 to 31 inches now, according to Henry Harteveldt, founder and travel industry analyst at the Atmosphere Research Group.
Airlines have also installed skinnier seat cushions, pushed for "ultra slimline" rows and shoehorned in more seats to profit from more paying passengers. In 2012, most of Boeing's most popular aircraft, the 777, were delivered with 10 seats to a row, breaking from a decades-long tradition of nine-seat rows.
Airbus, the French plane maker that originally designed its A320 jet to fly with 150 seats, is now pushing to pack in up to 186 passengers. Other proposals have hewed toward the bizarre: In June, the firm submitted a patent for a tiny swiveling toadstool that looks like a bicycle seat.
"You don't get a Mercedes S Class for a Ford Fusion price," Spirit chief executive Ben Baldanza said last year in an interview. "If you want more legroom -- go pay for it at another airline."
Airlines have offered plusher arrangements for a price, but even that doesn't prevent neighbors from sparring. Indeed, the battle of the "knee defender," a $21.95 device that clamps onto the tray table preventing the next seat up from leaning back, raged in United Airlines' "Economy Plus" section, where coach fliers can pay a premium for four extra inches of precious room.
United Airlines and other U.S. carriers have banned the device, and the Federal Aviation Administration restricts its use during taxi, takeoff and landing.
Travelers, as they often do, disagree on whether reclining one's seat is a civil right or searing wrong. But nearly everyone has found something to complain with regarding the coach-cabin crunch. A TripAdvisor survey in June found fliers were most peeved when planes had limited legroom and uncomfortable seats, with their complaints even outnumbering costly airline fees and erratic delays.
So why aren't airliners giving passengers more breathing room? Simple: Cramming pays. Spirit -- the no-frills, high-fee airline that Consumer Reports last year gave one of the lowest overall scores for any company, ever -- enjoys one of the highest profit margins of all jetliners, and posted half a billion dollars in revenue in the second quarter, 22 percent higher than the same time last year.
Meanwhile, investors have routinely dogged the performance of the spacious-seated JetBlue, with investors egging the jetliner to tack on fees and, yes, add more seats. Analyst Helane Becker said, "The revenue benefit to the company would probably trump any customer pushback."