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Air Travelers Feel the Squeeze

When it comes to airline seating, a new study suggests one size does not fit all.

Analyzing data on fares, fees, seat size and pitch, the report from Hopper.com provides statistical support for what most travelers already know: Your satisfaction with your flying experience is a function of both the type of traveler you are and the carrier you choose.

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“We segmented the market by looking at what additional fees you pay vs. what your total cost is going to be,” said Patrick Surry, the company’s chief data scientist. Combining that with different airlines’ seat offerings, they ranked the airlines on “cost per seat inch” and other criteria.

Among their findings:

  • For budget travelers (price-focused, unlikely to pay for extras), the best airlines are Spirit and Frontier.
  • For standard travelers (such as those with a carry-on, two checked bags and wanting to select a seat), the best airlines are JetBlue and Virgin America.
  • For customer service-focused travelers, the best airlines are JetBlue and Virgin America.
  • For comfort-focused travelers, the best airlines are JetBlue and AirTran.

In several categories, Alaska and Delta were determined to be the worst, a surprising finding considering both carriers scored well in J.D. Power’s most recent airline satisfaction study.

"What our customers tell us is that Alaska Airlines service is among the best in the industry," said airline spokesperson Bobbie Egan.

The findings may be partly due to the carriers’ far-flung networks and multi-tiered fare structures which can lead to higher costs per analyzed parameter.

Conversely, budget-conscious travelers are likely to find their own costs higher than expected if they do choose to pay for anything above their base fare.

Unfortunately, when it comes to seat size, there’s little chance of a change for the better. According to a recent CNBC All-America Economic Survey, fewer than 10 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of the size of the seats on their flights.

But at least one airline is trying to change that.

"With regard to our seat comfort, we are in the process of retrofitting our fleet with seats made by luxury, European car seat maker Recaro," said Egan. "These comfortable seats are specially designed to give our customers more space."

With planes already flying full and more airlines planning to add more seats, the squeeze will definitely be on this summer.