Monday, March 7, 2016

Airline Seat Space Is About More Than Comfort

"Skyrider" seats demonstrated several years ago at a trade show. If adopted by the FAA, and for long trips, passengers better be ready for blood clots and hemorrhoids - also escaping a possible disaster.

As Spring break unfolds, airline travelers are confronted not only by absurdly long TSA security lines (as staffing has been scaled down by 15 percent) but also by ever reduced seat pitch in economy class. For example, Spirit airlines has now reduced the space between seats to 28 inches, which might tempt some to use the infamous "knee defender" which came to light two years ago. To refresh memories, the device is designed to protect the knees and legs of a tall, lanky passenger in the seat behind. It works by preventing the forward passenger from exercising the recline option. Needless to say, a number of angry altercations erupted on planes where some passengers attempted to use it.

Now, Sen. Chuck Schumer, to the chagrin of airline profiteers,  has proposed a law mandating that the FAA require more legroom. While some nabobs have insisted this is specious, a matter of the government setting decrees on acceptable comfort (and costs) it is actually about something more important - safety. If seat pitches are too narrow than in the event of an emergency - such as a fire on a plane - they make seat egress much more difficult. Schumer's argument is that we shouldn't await a calamity to address the matter. I agree.

It doesn't take an Einstein or 'rocket scientist' to figure out why the airlines have crammed more rows and seats into their planes. It is all about money, profits. The more seats, the more fares and the more moola collected. In the case of Spirit, if the current 28 inches pitch was mandated to be 31 inches, the airline would effectively lose at least two rows of seats. This is based on the 26-row configuration posted on the website SeatGuru.  Multiplied over a lot of Spirit flights that translates into significant revenue lost.

The Neoliberal capitalist nabobs aren't that concerned with safety issues, even one disaster that might claim 100 lives because most passengers were unable to get out in time. No, they are more exercised over the disappearance of low cost fares - evidently believing passengers care more about low cost flights than the ability to escape a plane fire erupting just before takeoff.

One of the opinion pieces appearing in the Denver Post yesterday - against Schumer's plan - claimed:

"In January, the travel website Skift attempted to calculate the cost of additional legroom and recline on a passenger jet flying in the competitive North Atlantic region (e.g. London to New York). The conclusion: $33 per inch or $13.33 per degree of recline"

The implication here is that an economy passenger isn't willing to pay for an extra 3 inches of leg room (say $99 according to the Skift analysis) if it could save the person's life. Of course, in the person's own cost -benefit analysis he or she may believe the occasion for which the extra inches matter - say to escape a plan fire - has too low a probability of occurrence to trade for higher fares. True, but if and when that odd event happens would you still want to be trapped? Think before answering.

The Neoliberal author pushing against any FAA regulatory mandate noted that "many economy class passengers already have the option to purchase economy -plus seats"  with 6 extra inches of legroom. The price is about 18 percent higher than economy class.  But he adds that  Skift's analysis shows that the "passenger load factor - the seats occupied by paying customers - in economy -plus cabins, only averages 36 percent."

In other words, airline passengers evidently don't value extra leg room as much as low fares. But if this proposition is true, why do so many passengers try to resort to the use of knee defenders on flights?  The increasing use of these devices shows that many passengers do value the extra leg room, even if one analysis by one site for one level of cabin (economy-plus) seems to show otherwise.

Before the era of airline deregulation in the 1980s, many of us (boomers) were flying comfortably in the 1960s, on Pan Am, Eastern and National Airlines. We enjoyed spacious seat pitch as well as seat width - and halfway decent airline meals. The typical fare to fly from Miami to New Orleans in 1969 was $90 which would translate into $360 in today's dollars. To us that extra comfort was more than worth the price.

I am also hard pressed to believe that airline passengers today are so inured to being packed like sardines or cattle that comfort (and safety) no longer matter and low cost trumps all. But perhaps I am wrong. Because 90 percent of the passengers traveling by air today don't know any different experience, maybe indeed it doesn't matter to them, I mean, you can't pine or miss what you never had in the first place.

Let's just hope that if that preference for lower fares is real and means embracing ever smaller seat pitch, the test for safety thresholds doesn't intrude too soon.

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