Minimum Standards for Passengers’ Space, a public interest group, recently won the favor of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., convincing the court that decreasing seat size may pose a safety hazard.
The average seat width has narrowed from 18.5 to 17 inches, and the average distance between rows has reduced from 35 to 31 inches (and as narrow as 28 inches in some cases). The court determined that difficulty in exiting a plane and the potential for blood clots during long flights were likely, and expressed suspicion when the FAA refused to release its evacuation studies.
Industry observers blame the disappearing leg room as well as soaring prices on mergers, which create monopolies and eliminate competition.
Skepticism about airline monopolies is neither new nor unfounded. When American Airlines and US Airways announced a merger in 2013, concerns regarding the cost to travelers hit the headlines. Since the merger, American Airlines did raise the price of tickets.
While the industry claims that rising prices are reflective of more travel demand and better facilities, recent mega-mergers correlate with airfares rising faster than inflation.
Airlines know this.
As Fortune Magazine describes,
Staff attorneys with the Justice Department who had built a case against the merger had documents showing airline executives bragging about how the mergers allowed them to jack up prices for travelers. ‘Three successful fare increases—[we were] able to pass along to customers because of consolidation,’ Scott Kirby, who would become the president of the new American Airlines, wrote in a 2010 internal company presentation.
With the consolidation of the industry leading to decreased competition and continuing high fares, what motivation do airlines have to focus on customer comfort?
Concern for passengers—safety, comfort, space, and an overall pleasant flight experience—should be a top priority for any airline, but most major carriers instead focus on maximizing ticket sales (typically involving overbooking) and packing as many passengers onto one plane as possible.
Dan Reed of Forbes argues that airlines may not be solely to blame:
Seventeen years ago American tried something truly astounding. They added space – 3 to 5 inches of pitch – to every coach seat on every one of their planes. They called it ‘More Space Throughout Coach.’ The airline tossed two whole rows of seats off every plane – that’s 10 to 12 seats off narrow-body planes and 16 to 20 off its wide-bodied. American’s management placed a huge bet on people behaving in the interest of their comfort over their pocket book. It was a bet they lost, and lost badly, over the next three to five years.
What happened, the Homemakers Journal concludes, was those coach passengers were not willing to pay as little as $10 “extra” for “more” space.
Passengers appreciate room when they have it, but may not be willing to pay to keep it, especially if the room is perceived as a right taken away by mergers in the first place.
Given a choice to cram themselves into a plane with smaller seats or fly comfortably with the airline offering space at a slightly higher price, passengers opted to feel cramped if it meant saving a few extra bucks. So, with courts demanding increased space and passengers unwilling to pay more, what options does that leave for the airlines?
Perhaps it’s time for airlines to revisit and completely rethink their seat layouts.
Staggered seat configuration with upper-level and lower-level seats according to IPVenture’s patented technologies using Boeing 787 or Airbus A350 as examples, would allow airlines to maintain the same number of seats for economy class with the same seat pitch and seat width, such as 33” and 19” respectively. Offering much more room for economy class passengers to recline their seat backs and leg rests to at least 45 degrees, allowing them to enjoy business class seat comfort at an economy class price.
Further, upper-level seats could easily extend the seat pitch to 58”, and lower-level seats could glide backward to make room for passengers to reach the aisle without disturbing their neighbors, allowing the airlines adopting such technologies to command a higher ticket price over others. Flyers would enjoy ample room, and airlines wouldn’t need to compromise the number of seats on the plane.
With a novel approach to airplane seat layouts, airline regulators are satisfied, and the airlines win—as do the passengers. Whatever the solution, it’s clear that a new approach is needed in how we deal with airline comfort.