United CEO Refused to Sit Coach for an Interview About How Shitty Coach Seats Are Today [Updated]

United CEO Oscar Munoz
United CEO Oscar Munoz
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty)

Riding coach can be an excruciating, constricting experience, as airlines have for years worked to shrink the space for basic flyers in hopes of jamming more people into a plane. So the Wall Street Journal thought to ask the CEOs of every major airline what they think about flying coach today—while they were sitting in one of the cramped seats. One exec declined: United CEO Oscar Munoz. Nice.

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Maybe United simply wanted to avoid another public bashing, after spending months dealing with the backlash over its shitty, inhumane treatment of passengers and animals. But the funny thing is, we have no idea what stopped Munoz from sitting coach for the interview.

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From the WSJ:

Asked why, United declined to comment.

Messrs. Bastian and Parker fit, although knees were kissing distance from the seat in front. Neither had to contend with a middle-seat neighbor to rub shoulders and sides or a passenger reclining in front of them.

But Bastian and Parker aren’t in line for any accolades for their offerings:

Neither apologize for packing in more, skinnier seats. Their message: If you want more space, buy it.

U.S. airlines in recent years have improved on many fronts, from reducing lost baggage to consistently earning profits. The biggest backslide, at least from the reader emails I receive constantly, is standard coach accommodations.

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Both Bastian and Parker say they fly standard coach, with the WSJ getting Parker to admit it definitely sucks to deal with the ever-so-common occurrence of a passenger reclining into your space.

But it’s all good, because it brings in the extra cash:

“I feel what our customers experience,” he says. “Without a doubt, this is, by design, less space than you have in cabins for our customers who desire a different product.”

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The seats won’t get any smaller, the CEOs told the newspaper, but who can say if that’s the case for United. I’m dying to know why Munoz wouldn’t just nestle into a middle seat and chill, but United hasn’t responded to a request for comment on what happened, either. We’ll update the post if we hear back.

Update 6:30 p.m.: A United spokesperson send Jalopnik the following statement:

At the time the request came in earlier this year, we were at a pivotal moment in executing the strategic plan that we had recently laid out and chose not to dedicate time to the interview on our CEO’s schedule. We continue to invest in our Economy product to provide customers with a comfortable journey. As an example, we are in the process of rolling out a new Economy seat on our 777-200 fleet, which represent the majority of our international wide-body aircraft. This new seat was selected as a result of extensive customer testing and feedback and features an updated design with more living space and under-seat stowage.

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

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DISCUSSION

curbwatching
curbwatching

The economics of the airline industry are brutal. I get why they would say “if you want more space, buy it.” It’s amazingly cheap to fly today. Far cheaper than it should be, to be honest.

But that’s no excuse for not at least trying to improve the experience of flying coach. There is a lot that can be done, from innovative seating layouts to smarter reclines that don’t shove your neighbor’s tray into their torso, to simply improving the design of the cabin and seats to make the whole thing a little more bearable. Even the boarding experience can be improved with a little more planning to keep it from becoming a mad rush at the gate. All that can be done while still getting the same number of people onto a flight.

We’re definitely getting a good deal when we fly. Especially when you consider the economics involved, and the cost to the environment. But that’s no reason the airlines can’t at least try to make the experience less punishing for their passengers.

Edit: here are some innovative designs that could make life easier while still keeping the planes packed:

Staggered seats, meaning more privacy with the same space (Thompson AeroSeating)

Privacy screens between seats, or flipping one seat backwards plus a privacy screen for extra space and comfort (British Airways concept)

Or this really cool concept design from AirLair, making the seats much nicer while actually fitting 30% more seating in each plane: