empty plane

I traveled a lot this summer. Between two research trips and a jaunt to the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany, I calculated that I flew 16,832 miles this summer. I rode on a lot of airplanes and spent a lot of time in airports. With all those long hauls I had a lot of time to think about how our air travel system works–or, more accurately, how poorly it works–and to come up with a few thoughts on how we might be able to fix it. I also thought it might make an interesting series of blog posts, for whatever my opinions are worth (which might not be much).

First things first. This is not just a polemic to complain about airlines, which nearly everybody does. Let’s face it–it’s extremely rare for anyone in the United States to have a good experience flying any airline. It’s slightly more common in Europe, but customer complaints against air carriers are rising year by year and the virtually universal perception is that air travel as a whole is a terrible experience, that it’s been getting worse, and that it will continue to decline in the foreseeable future. But, as is evident from the sheer volume of increasing complaints against airlines, complaining doesn’t really do much. Somebody out there needs to start coming up with solutions. Or at least talking about them. I’m certainly no expert, but, as a user of our terribly broken air travel system, why shouldn’t I be able to throw some ideas out there?

One of the most disturbing developments in air travel recently–and the one I’m going to focus on in this article–is the trend of airlines to try to monetize the discomfort of their passengers. By this I mean, they’re trying to turn the horribleness of the air travel experience into a profit center. Airlines are not blind to our complaints. They may never do anything about them, but they’re certainly aware of them. Monetization of passenger misery appears to be a business strategy deliberately chosen to try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, or something like that. It’s shocking in its cynicism and its complete disregard for the dignity and personal autonomy of airline passengers. In any other industry it would be verboten; but in air travel it’s the new normal.

air travel 1960s

This was a pretty standard airline cabin in the early 1960s. Makes you nostalgic for the good old days, doesn’t it?

Monetization of misery manifests itself in, to cite the most obvious example, the decline in the size of airline seats over the years. When the Boeing 707 airliner came into service in the 1950s, the standard width of a seat was 18 inches–evidently chosen because that was the average figure of the width of an Air Force pilot’s hips at that time. Today, more than 50 years later, many airlines offer seats in coach class only 16.7 inches wide, with most of the decline in size occurring since the early 1990s. This is troubling enough without even mentioning that most Americans (and a lot of Europeans) have gotten fatter since the 1990s. Airlines are trying to get more butts on their planes, and increase the revenue per flight, by shrinking the seats in which those butts are expected to sit. Furthermore, the smaller seats are being packed increasingly closer together, eliminating not only “legroom” (a very misleading term) but also the amount of personal space that passengers have between each other and the rows in front and behind them. And it is the airlines making these decisions, not the plane manufacturers; changing seat configurations is relatively easy on modern airliners, and in any event the airplane manufacturers deliver what airlines order.

Airlines are well aware of the misery this causes. Their answer? Make money from the misery by charging passengers extra money for larger seats or roomier rows. This twisted thinking evidently proceeds from the expectation that passengers will be so uncomfortable in their 16.7″ wide seats with no legroom that they’ll be willing to shell out extra money for a less uncomfortable seat. Less torturous seats masquerade under a number of different euphemisms, like “Main Cabin Extra” (American Airlines’s chosen term), and sell for anywhere from $29 to $89 a pop depending on the airline. Airlines have become increasingly brazen at trying to “upsell” unhappy passengers. Witness the response I got when I commented about shrinking airline seats on Twitter, naming American’s account in the conversation:

airline twitter fracas

Just think this over for a moment. Here is a major corporation deciding, “Hey, I know what–I’m going to market a service that deliberately sucks so I can charge people more for offering the less sucky service I used to provide, and I’ll get rich in the process!” American Airlines isn’t the only purveyor of this tragic thinking. Almost all U.S. airlines are doing it now. A majority of corporate executives in a major U.S. industry have convinced themselves they’ll make more money by hurting their own customers. In what other industry, besides air travel, could a decision like this seem even barely rational?

Even more shockingly, airlines are actually planning to inflict more discomfort on their passengers, in line with this cruel and craven philosophy. Recently the European airplane manufacturer Airbus patented a new kind of airline seat–a folding frame contraption much like a bicycle seat. Let that sink in for a while. Airlines will soon be deciding that even that 16.7″ wide, pain-causing seat that you paid for is too comfortable to let you sit in. Instead they’re going to make you sit on a bicycle seat. If you want a real chair, you’re going to have to pay extra. This is the horrifying future of air travel.

So what’s the solution? The idea I offer the airlines–however starry-eyed it may seem of me to suggest–is simply a change in thinking. They need to stop thinking about what they can do to their customers, and start thinking about what they can do for them. In a conflict between the bottom line and human decency, airline decision-makers must feel that they have the freedom to choose decency. After all, they are human too.

Too-small airline seats are not only a customer service issue–they’re a security concern. Witness this news story about a fight that broke out in midair over this exact problem.

They must also consider the message they’re sending by making the choice to monetize misery. By trying to sell someone as a premium something they have the right to expect as their bottom line service, airlines treat their customers with contempt. The $79 that United Airlines wants to charge me to sit in a human-sized, non-pain-causing chair is more important to them than the goodwill and potential customer loyalty they may purchase from me by treating me with a basic level of decency. In any event I don’t have a choice to take my business to their competitors, because all, or at least most, major airlines are also monetizing misery. I don’t know much about marketing, but it seems to me that making more money by threatening a customer with greater discomfort doesn’t make for a very deep sense of brand loyalty. How airline executives missed this basic lesson is beyond me.

Will it cost money to bring back 18″ wide seats, arranged in rows with a humanly decent amount of space between them? Of course it will. “But that will cost money!” is an unconvincing objection for any airline to raise against this sort of suggestion, given the profit margins they currently enjoy. It’s not that I don’t know these fixes will eat in to the airlines’, bottom line. It’s that I just don’t care, and I don’t think very many other aggrieved air travelers do either. With what we, the customers, pay the airlines, they can afford it. Trust me. They can.

I’ll have some more suggestions on needed reforms to our air travel system in future posts. Fly safe!

The photo of the empty airplane interior is by Kevin Dooley and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.