Cabin mockup of the 737 MAX 8 with the new Meridian seats. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Cabin mockup of the 737 MAX 8 with the new Meridian seats – Image: Southwest Airlines

I recently attended Southwest’s #SWAmediaDay and the unveiling of their new Houston Hobby international terminal. As an unabashed Southwest fan, and card-carrying A-Lister (Southwest’s version of elite frequent flyer), it was an excellent opportunity to get up-to-date on what’s going on behind the scenes at Southwest. But the exhibit which stole the show for me? Finally, a pair of the mysterious new blue Meridian seats for my eyes (and derrière) to literally size up.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed an interesting trend: Airlines release new slimline seats, talking them up to make them seem as if they are greatest innovation to passenger experience since the advent of the jet engine. Immediately following, passengers (and media) quickly cry afoul, often before trying the seats out. Because, all change is bad, right? Who moved my cheese?! If we were to try to find middle ground between these two extremes we might arrive at an analogy comparing slimlines to the Rolls-Royce RB211. A jet engine for sure, but by all accounts an expensive flop which had a part in destroying Rolls Royce, crippling Lockheed, and being one of just a few factors which killed the L-1011 TriStar.

But, I digress… We are talking about something as benign as seats after all, right?

Southwest's B/E Aerospace Meridian seats. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Southwest’s B/E Aerospace Meridian seats – Image: Southwest Airlines

What’s the complaint?

The most common complaint I hear from fellow passengers is that slimlines allow airlines to cram more seats on the plane and thus further encroach on personal space. This is a completely valid complaint. The good news? Southwest already did this with their EVOLVE cabin refresh in 2012 and 2013. Along with updated sidewalls, bulkhead logos and carpet, their existing solution (B/E Aerospace Innovator IIs) received new upholstery and modifications to include a recline reduction from three inches to two. I say “no” to reclining my seat so this was a win for me.

After it was all said and done, an extra row of seats could be squeezed onto their fleet of 737-700s and, eventually, most of the 737-300s, increasing seating capacity from 137 to 143. The -800s launched with EVOLVE so there was no increase in capacity. Southwest claimed the net legroom reduction wouldn’t be noticed thanks to a thinning of the back seat padding. I beg to differ, but the difference was, in their defense, minor.

Mockup of how the Meridians will appear on the MAX 8 aircraft. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Mockup of how the Meridians will appear on the MAX 8 aircraft – Image: Southwest Airlines

The good

With the move to formal slimlines, the airline again has the opportunity to add additional seats. But according to Bob Jordan, Southwest’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, they won’t. What does that mean? Passengers get to pick up a bit of extra legroom, including that which was lost with the EVOLVE refresh. This is excellent news. But, it gets better…

Meridians: More legroom, and better access to it. Photo: JL Johnson / AirlineReporter

Meridians: More legroom, and better access to it

The Meridian seats are a brand-new, late entry into the slimline market. This means B/E Aerospace had the opportunity to address concerns with Southwest’s current model, as well as take note of challenges with existing slimlines on the market. Thankfully, this model addresses my biggest complaint with the Innovator IIs: An annoyingly low horizontal bar which runs across the back of each seat group. The bar restricts access to legroom and has at times led to bruised shins. Sayonara, shin shredder!

More legroom, better access to said legroom: Win.

Southwest's Innovator II, from a similar angle. (Pre-Evolve interior shown)

Southwest’s Innovator II, from a similar angle (pre-Evolve interior shown)

The neutral 

The airline also claims the Meridians are the widest economy seats available in the single-aisle 737 market. When asked where the extra room came from (the 737s aren’t getting any wider, after all) Mr. Jordan informed me that these seat sets take advantage of an unused space gap between the seats and the sidewall. I happen to be quite familiar with this gap. It’s the perfect hidey-hole for my Bose QC-25 case. I just measured, the case is 2.25 inches thick. Wider seats, awesome!

LUV Seat Shoes- Shoes made from repurposed pre-evolve leather. Stylish and a great impromptu measuring instrument. Photo: JL Johnson / AirlineReporter

LUV Seat Shoes- Shoes made from repurposed pre-evolve leather. Stylish and a great impromptu measuring instrument. – Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

But, there’s a problem… Just a few steps away from the Meridian seat display was a LUV Seat exhibit which included the original iteration Innovator II seat sporting the pre-evolve upholstery. I took a quick measurement using one of the LUV shoes, the seat cushions between yesteryear’s seat appeared to be the same size as tomorrow’s Meridian seats. Additionally, when I tried the Meridians out, I felt no discernible difference. I’m a big guy, I like to think I could tell, but I couldn’t. The armrests on these seats are smaller, though. By my account about 30% narrower. This has led some in the industry to speculate that Southwest might be trying to fool us. I’m not jumping to conclusions just yet, after all what was on display was an early model, a yet-to-be-finalized prototype.

Southwest's Meridians at #SWAmediaDay

Southwest’s Meridians at #SWAmediaDay

The unknown

The gap between the seats and the sidewall has been reduced. Will that cause an issue? Potentially, if you pick the right window seat, the “scoop” of the sidewall allows for extra shoulder room, over the gap, and into the “scoop.” That shoulder room bonus might be at risk.

Will the legroom and access be better? All indications seem to suggest yes. And we know for certain the shin bar has been 86ed, so hallelujah to that.

Are (or will) the seats actually be wider? I think the jury is still out on that.

Finally, Southwest has committed to keeping seating capacity as-is, but noted (a few times) during their media event that they have the option to expand. The meridians provide a low-hanging fruit which the airline could very well be tempted to pluck at some point in the future. As noted above, the -300s and -700s currently sporting the evolve interior carry 143 passengers. An extra row of seats would take that number up to 149, just shy of the 150 passenger limit imposed by the three flight attendant compliment on these variants.

A raised information pocket gives Customer more space for personal device usage and storage. Photo: Southwest Airlines

A raised information pocket gives Customer more space for personal device usage and storage. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Conclusion

Overall I’m optimistic about the new Meridians but I really must hold my judgement until I have an opportunity to experience them in a more appropriate setting. So far I have only seen a single set in real life and that really isn’t much to go by. Especially when trying them out in a wide open space. I have never seen photos of more than one set together in the wild. I hope the airline is testing them in a more real-life setting.

In any case, I look forward to seeing these new seats as early as May of 2016, when they are introduced with go-forward 737-800s, and later, the MAX 8.

Related AirlineReporter Posts

SENIOR CORRESPONDENT – LEE’S SUMMIT, MO. JL is a self described “medium shot” at a non-aviation industry Fortune-500. He’s a semi-frequent traveler, social media addict and avid planespotter. A proud Midwesterner, he’s based in Lee’s Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. Email: jl@airlinereporter.com

http://www.airlinereporter.com
Updates on the 1st 727’s Last Flight + Interior Photo Tour
16 Comments

Heh. The slippers remind me of bowling shoes. The new seats look pretty cool – but I still think my favorite seats were whatever Lufthansa is using on its 747-8i – 8 hours, and not a bit of numbness or ache. SAS also has a slick seat on its A330s; the seat pocket is moved up top, freeing a bunch of room near your knees.

I’ve yet to try Lufty nor SAS but they are on my short list. Yay for legroom!

Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment, Justin.

JL | AirlineReporter

Peter Harrington-Cressman

Saying the RB.211 is a flop is a bit (read: hugely) wrong. The engine was the most advanced turbofan of it’s day. Sure it had issues, but so did the CF6….need I mention the PW4000? The RB.211 is not a flop…it spawned the entire Trent family which is a huge success. The JT9D tore itself apart before Pratt and Whitney solved the plethora of issues….sorry, but that comment is dangerously misleading.

Hey, Peter. Thanks for reading and for taking a moment to leave a comment.

We’ll have to disagree here. To say it was a success based on the fact that its predecessors were successful is telling of how bad it truly was. It bankrupt RR which required emergency intervention from the UK to stay afloat. It nearly took out Lockheed as well, only after the US government made promises to back loans was the fate of either company known. I’m sorry, but any project that kills one company, nearly kills another and requires interventions from two sovereign governments is a dud in my book.

JL | AirlineReporter

Then by utilizing that logic, I would refer you to look at the JT9D that powered the 747….Lockheed never resorted to building gliders and parking them all over Palmdale like a certain Seattle based competitor did for months while Pratt and Whitney sorted out the engine’s massive issues. Even once they were in service, the JT9D had huge issues….sorry JL, but you are misinformed. Don’t forget….the RB.211 powers the majority of 757s.
And no RB.211 would mean no Trent family. Success begets success.

Pretty impressive that you can take measurements, agree that they’re not delivering on the promise and write that off as a “neutral” issue. Disappointing, really. As one who is unabashedly a “homer” to the company some tough love when they claim one thing and present another is warranted and likely to be well received.

JL Johnson

Seat width is ranked neutral because as best I can tell I gain nothing, and I lose nothing. Let us assume they are indeed making it up for PR/marketing purposes… At worst they’ve joined the ranks of every other airline, heck, every other Fortune 500 in making claims that aren’t accurate. Should they be called out on it? Sure. But I’m not convinced just yet.

I am no expert on this subject, however, I would like to know, do the airlines determine the kind of seat they going to use, the seat size and the legroom. Some time ago I flew from Paris to Doha on Qatar in a A340, economy. The seats were extremely narrow , short and there were virtually no leg room. I am not a very tall person, 1.7 m. My knees were glued to the seat in front of me.
Can’t IATA, or manufacturer prescribe to the airline the kind of seat to use, the width, seat size and legroom, bearing in mind that it is at the end of the day the economy passenger that pays for the flight.
I understand it is a business, but to cramp a person up for nearly 8 hours, that is no joke, believe me.
How does thing work?

JL Johnson

Hi Henri. I too am not an expert. My understanding, however is that airlines source their own seats from any number of providers. Buying a plane is sort of like buying a ticket from Spirit or Ryanair, it’s all unbundled and you buy the extras.

JL | AirlineReporter

Great report, helpful.
Perhaps you can do a follow-up.
Thank you.

Brian Ebbs

Great insight into the new seats. Will there be plugs for electronics? I don’t see them in the pictures.

Many thanks.

JL Johnson

Existing plans say no power outlets. We asked the SWA brass about the option and they wouldn’t give a solid answer one way or another. I heard from a friend that Gary Kelly (CEO) told employees at a pep rally that there would be no power. That would be a mistake for them given their appetite for longer flights these days…

JL | AirlineReporter

The widest seat you can put to a 737 with a 19″ aisle and 2″ armrest is 17.3″. Now if we reduce the aisle width to 17″ and the armrest width to 1.5″ you can accomodate a 18.3 inch seat.

Steven Smith

Take a very close look at the seats. The headrests protrude at least an inch from the seat, and make the seat singularly the most uncomfortable seat around and leave you with an unhealthy crook in your necklace if you spend a significant amount of time in the seat. It reminds me of the seats on Brussels Airlines A330s on African routes. The flight attendants could not apologize enough for such a poor and uncomfortable design.

Malcolm

I just checked with Southwest about whether their new wider seats (17.8″ over their present-day 17.1″ seats) would have any adverse impact on aisle width. Since 737-800/900 and new 737-MAX aircraft won’t be any wider, it stood to reason that truly wider seats would mean that aisles would become narrower. Narrower aisles would be bad news for disabled passengers since aisle chairs are already too narrow for many people. (Actually, has anyone ever seen the on-board aisle chair used during a flight?)

The answer to the question about whether wider seats will mean narrower aisles is: the aisles will remain the same. The explanation for how this no-cost seat widening is possible lies in simple mathematics. The seats are not really wider! What has changed is how the width is measured. The armrests have been made skinnier! The seat width is calculated by measuring the distance between the insides of the armrests on either side of the seat. There will be more room for hips, but passengers will have to fight harder to rest an arm on the armrest.

Aren’t marketing folks great?

I have flown two flights in the last couple of weeks and sent Southwest a complaint while on the plane. The window seat is now closer to the side of the plane. My shoulder and arm are quite sore after a short flight. My arms keep sliding off the streamlined armrests. The coushins are down right hard Big mistake for southwest to try and sell this as an improvement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *