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?
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.