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The front-to-back space between a plane’s economy class seats is dropping to as little as 29 inches at some airlines – close to the industry minimum.

Getty Images

It's a phenomenon that seems to contradict evolution: As human beings grow ever larger on average, airline seats keep shrinking.

And just when you thought your leg room in economy class couldn't get tighter, more downsizing is on the way.

American Airlines recently announced it's planning to decrease the front-to-back space between its economy class seats by up to two inches (or five centimetres), from 31 inches to as little as 29 – close to the industry minimum. Other airlines are expected to follow suit.

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This is at a time when companies are increasingly cutting back on travel spending and requiring flying in coach rather than business.

When you're travelling on business, arriving in good shape is vital and it gets any trip off to a bad start when you're twisted into a cramped seat and the passenger in the row ahead decides to recline a seat into your face. That's why airlines are increasingly offering bigger economy seats for those willing to pay up for the privilege. And the options are expanding.

Canadian airlines are finally catching up to trends started by European carriers, says Calgary-based independent airline analyst Rick Erickson.

Over the past two years, Air Canada has added sections of premium economy seats on Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft, as well as its Airbus A330s. Air Canada Rouge, whose standard economy seats have a 29-inch pitch, offers bigger premium seats in the front of the plane. And WestJet Airlines Ltd. has moved away from its original no-frills model by adding premium economy seats on many routes in the past year.

"In a sense, premium economy is much like what we used to get for free in the back of the plane 10 or 12 years ago: 32-inch seat pitch at a minimum, sometimes 34 on international flights and meals and free drinks," Erickson says.

Premium-priced seating is an inevitable development in an era when airlines are charging for everything from meals to seat selection. "Any time you as a consumer want anything approaching comfort, flexibility or convenience, you pay."

The cost to upgrade can be significant, but that has to be balanced against comfort and convenience, he says.

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Prices can vary widely on any tickets at any time, but to exemplify the upgrading costs, the lowest Air Canada non-stop return trip Toronto to London listed on Air Canada's website in mid-May was listed at $931 in economy. The same trip in premium economy was $1,659. The ticket would still read economy and corporate accountants should appreciate the saving over the $7,929 quoted for full-fare business. (Large companies can arrange discounts by buying in bulk.)

However, Air Canada is now offering customers the chance to make a lower offer than full fare to upgrade to unsold premium economy seats or business class.

The Air Canada bidding system that works through Montreal-based Plusgrade works like an auction, starting with a minimum bid and stating a maximum. Passengers with bookings in economy can offer an amount they'd be willing to pay for an upgrade. Other Plusgrade clients offering this bid program include Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa German Airlines, Air China, Swiss International Air Lines, Singapore Airlines and Qantas Airways.

While Air Canada isn't able to provide numbers, there has been a steady growth of customers making upgrade bids since the program started last November, said Peter Fitzpatrick, the airline's manager of corporate communications. Passengers can check their flight number on Air Canada's website 10 days in advance to see what upgrades are available. Travellers are notified if they have a winning bid about 48 hours before departure.

Only a small percentage of premium seats are ever available for bidding. "Most are already sold to customers who like the certainty of knowing they have confirmed space in the premium cabin," Fitzpatrick said.

There's another option for frequent fliers. If open seats are available at the last minute in premium categories, they're offered to Air Canada Altitude program members for an upgrade fee that's less than the full fare. That's an incentive to be a loyal customer of an airline, Erickson says.

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It's most often possible on mid-week flights since there are seldom last-minute seats in premium categories available on Fridays or weekends, he adds.

There's a significant risk with either of these options that there will be others willing to pay the full fare and all the seats will be taken, Erickson notes. "Then, you'll be ticked off at yourself saying, 'Gee I should have bid more. This is going to make my ride even less comfortable than it might otherwise have been.'"

Erickson also expects Canadian carriers to start offering the ability to pay to sit next to an empty seat in economy. When a flight isn't full, several U.S. airlines offer that option for a price of $100 or $150 (U.S.).

But forget about the oft-quoted advice of dressing well and politely asking a gate agent for a complimentary upgrade when you check in, Erickson cautions.

"There was an era when a gate attendant could upgrade employees or frequent fliers to business class. But that doesn't work any more," he says. "Now, even if you work for the airline, it takes a note in your file from a senior executive to be eligible to upgrade."

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