Sept. 7, 2012— -- Today's overhead bins are filled to overflowing with bags jammed in tight, squished and squashed beyond all recognition. Kind of like passengers in modern airplane seats.
Where did all the legroom go? It's a question I get a lot lately, maybe because I'm 6-foot-2, always on a plane and all too often wedged in my seat like a cork in a bottle. Clearly, someone has used the incredible shrinking ray on the seats. You know what I'm talking about; the same ray that has been used to shrink the amount of corn flakes in your cereal box.
It all comes down to money, and on a plane every square inch represents the potential for sorely needed revenue. So concern about the onboard experience (read: comfort) becomes less and less important. Airlines have proved ingenious at finding new ways to extract more cash from our wallets and paying a fee for a bigger-better seat is the logical extension.
That said, cagey travelers can fight back and sometimes even win. The prize: an extra inch or two of space, and don't let anyone tell you a single inch can't make a difference.
For more travelnews and insights, view Rick's blog at farecompare.com
The airlines are making it tougher on all but the most diminutive of travelers. Legroom is disappearing partly because airlines are adding more seats to planes. Even Southwest has pointed the shrinking ray at its planes, adding an extra six seats to some of its 737s so there's less room for you. To be fair, this now puts Southwest's seat area more in line with the competition, plus Southwest contends you still get plenty of "personal space" because the new seats have thinner armrests. But you tell me how it feels.
JetBlue, meanwhile, takes a slightly different tack by forcing economy seats closer together on some planes to create more legroom for higher-paying customers in the front of the cabin, according to the Boston Globe. At the same time, many airlines are trimming both economy and luxury seating, especially carriers taking delivery of new planes. A growing trend is a three-cabin-class approach, especially on international flights, featuring business, economy-premium and standard-economy seating.
But legroom isn't the only problem. Airlines have adopted the motto, "Let no empty seat be left behind," so the odds of being able to spread out sideways into an unoccupied middle seat are so low as to be hilarious. Kind of like the odds of finding dollar-a-gallon gas, and high fuel prices are in fact one of the main culprits behind this mess.
Some ideas to get you more space:
Become an "elite": It can pay to fly the same airline all the time; reaching upper-level status in your carrier's frequent-flier miles program is one way to get roomier seats or at least free aisle-window seats toward the front of the plane (and usually, you'll get these automatically). You can also spend your miles to upgrade.
If you don't fly enough, become a virtual elite by using an airline-branded credit card to earn miles and also offer perks like free bags or priority boarding, but watch those card fees.
If all you care about is price, forget loyalty and just use an airfare comparison search site to find the cheapest fare. But it can mean you're assigned the worst seat in the house time and again.
Move fast and keep looking: When booking a flight, immediately choose the best seat you can, then keep looking to see whether you can improve your position, even after you get to the airport on the day of departure. If you don't mind paying, departure day is the time airlines often drop prices on seats that no one's shown much interest in and they might be willing to dicker, especially on international routes. Check at the kiosk, check in the airline lounge, check your smartphone's app and look for last-minute seat deals.
If you're really obsessive, check out one of the many "seat review" sites; there are plenty of them.
The two-for-one deal: If you're what airlines refer to as a "customer of size," you already know you're supposed to be proactive and purchase two seats. Southwest has famously thrown larger fliers off planes -- those that didn't adhere to the carrier's two-seat policy, in any event, but many still hesitate to buy two seats. Who wants to pay double? But here's the good news: If the flight is not oversold, Southwest refunds the money for the second seat. So you get the extra space for nothing. There are no guarantees but if it happens, it's a sizeable deal by any standard.
Choose seats in the rear of the plane: The rear of the plane is usually the least popular part of an aircraft (its proximity to the restrooms might have something to do with that), but it's usually where you'll find open windows and aisles. At the very least, aisles offer some "stretch-out" space for longer legs and as long as you remember to keep your feet out of the way when the drink cart comes through, you'll be fine.
Fly mid-week: As mentioned, there are few empty middle seats these days, but you'll probably find more on "slow" travel days like Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday.
Just pay the fee, you might be surprised: American Airlines' "preferred" seating option can be as low as $4 and when you figure their fruit and cheese plate goes for $8.29, the seat is a deal. Prices for premium seats vary from airline to airline, but, generally, the longer the trip, the higher the price. Southwest uses a slightly different method: Pay 10 bucks for their cut-in-line boarding queue and you pretty much have a choice of seats, including exit rows and bulkheads.
Can't find a decent perch and the supply of fee-seats is exhausted? Chalk it up to that annoying shrinking ray, but next time choose your seat the moment you book your tickets. Everyone's doing the same thing, but he who strikes first will be the most comfortable.
The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.