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Airline Passengers Are Revolting

fat-guy-airplane

Airlines are squeezing ever-larger passengers into ever-smaller spaces. Naturally, the passengers are taking it out on the other passengers.

NYT (“On Jammed Jets, Sardines Turn on One Another“):

Flying coach can be a bruising experience these days.

Rory Rowland said he was rudely rebuffed after he asked the person in front of him not to recline his seat on a red-eye flight. When he later got up to use the bathroom, and the other passenger had fallen asleep, “I hip-checked his seat like you wouldn’t believe,” Mr. Rowland, a speaker and consultant, said, then feigned innocence when the enraged passenger complained to a flight attendant.

With air travelers increasingly feeling like packed sardines, flying has become a contact sport, nowhere more than over the reclined seat.

Now, it is only getting worse, as airlines re-examine every millimeter of the cabin.

Over the last two decades, the space between seats — hardly roomy before — has fallen about 10 percent, from 34 inches to somewhere between 30 and 32 inches. Today, some airlines are pushing it even further, leaving only a knee-crunching 28 inches.

To gain a little more space, airlines are turning to a new generation of seats that use lighter materials and less padding, moving the magazine pocket above the tray table and even reducing or eliminating the recline in seats. Some are even reducing the number of galleys and bathrooms.

Southwest, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, is installing seats with less cushion and thinner materials — a svelte model known in the business as “slim-line.” It also is reducing the maximum recline to two inches from three. These new seats allow Southwest to add another row, or six seats, to every flight — and add $200 million a year in newfound revenue.

“In today’s environment, the goal is to fit as many seats in the cabin as possible,” said Tom Plant, the general manager for seating products at B/E Aerospace, one of the top airplane seat makers. “We would all like more space on an aircraft, but we all like a competitive ticket price.”

[...]

With so little space to haggle over, passengers have developed their own techniques for handling the crowded conditions.

“They jam their knee into the back of your seat as hard as they can, and they’ll do it repeatedly to see if they can get a reaction,” said Mick Brekke, a businessman who flies for work a few times a month. “That’s happened to me more than once, and that usually settles down after they realize I’m not going to put it back up.”

The passengers Mr. Brekke has encountered are not even the most extreme: Some have taken to using seat-jamming devices, known as knee guards, that prevent a seat in front from reclining. Airlines ban them, but they work, users say.

Smaller seats are not the only reason passengers feel more constricted these days. Travelers are also getting bigger. In the last four decades, the average American gained a little more than 20 pounds and his or her waist expanded about 2.5 inches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The dimensions of airplanes, however, have not changed and neither has the average width of a coach seat, which is 17 to 18 inches.

As much as we like to complain about the airlines here, Andrew Exum is right: “Passengers have only themselves to blame for this. They’ve been clear their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd priority is low fares.” Flying coach is amazingly cheap but, alas, it’s the modern equivalent of riding a Greyhound.

For those of us who are taller than average, the lack of leg room is even more problematic. And, no, it doesn’t help when the passenger in the row ahead of us reclines into our knees. Then again, they have every right to that little bit of extra room if the airline gives them that option. Increasingly, they don’t, with seats either coming “pre-reclined” at a set angle or without any ability to recline.

Additionally, airlines are creating new classes of travel, selling ordinary coach seats with slightly more room—including the once-free-for-all bulkhead row seats—at a premium price. It’s a worthwhile option for taller passengers with some financial means, although certainly a burden on those of us traveling with children and therefore in need of multiple seats.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Tony W says:

    Airline Passengers Are Revolting

    Particularly the one sitting next to me…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  2. qtip says:

    Tip from a flight attendant: if the person next to you is so large that they are encroaching into your space, notify the flight attendant before takeoff. There is little they can do once you are in the air.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Nikki says:

    I always did hate flying.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. rodney dill says:

    @Tony W: you beat me to it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. Ben says:

    As someone who is 6’2″, it really sucks to cram into coach seats but I have no real choice. I would gladly pay 10-20% more on my ticket to have a larger seat with more legroom, but that doesn’t exist on any flight I’ve ever been on. The only option I have on most flights is to pay triple or 4 times the coach price for first class. Most flights I’ve taken never presented me with any sort of offer of an “expanded legroom” seat, or I’d have taken it. My choice is either a $300 seat to be in pain for 5 hours, or well over a grand for first class, in which case I would never be able to afford to fly anywhere, ever. So it looks like my consumer choice has been made for me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  6. qtip says:

    @Ben:

    Many airlines are offering a middle ground. E.g. Economy Plus on United is pretty good for tall people. The seat is the regular economy seat but you get 3-5″ of extra leg room. I’m 6’0″ and am very comfortable in Economy Plus. It’s available on every mainline United flight and not too expensive compared to Business/First.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. legion says:

    What amazes me about this article is not the lengths airlines will go to to squeeze a few more bucks out of their captive audiences, but that those audiences gleefully take their frustrations out, not on the actual airline that f*cked up the seating in the first place, but on their fellow passengers, who have no more control or impact than they themselves do. People are stupid.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  8. Woody says:

    @legion:

    Agreed, but one should direct their wrath at the decisionmakers, not the plebeians who have to actually work in those conditions. For increasingly meager pay.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Ben:

    Ben,

    Similar to United, Delta has Economy Plus on almost all flights but their puddle jumpers. If you are like me and live in a smaller city, your first flight will most likely not have it. Once you get to a hub (and assuming you are going to a large city) most larger planes now have them.

    Additionally, most flights now offer you the ability to secure the bulkhead seat for anywhere from $15 to $50.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Lounsbury says:

    On the rare occasion I fly to and within USA land – and among its ever more hippo-like inhabitants – I am reminded why I stay away. Not only do you have about the most cretinous form of provincial Security Theatre to make the airport experience itself unpleasant, your domestic flights are deeply unpleasant as well. I expect blind market ideology to also enable you all to undertake the social experiment of pure market driven cell-phone rules. As much as I personally dislike regulation, I can anticipate the market equilibrium will be as shitty as your domestic flight quality market equilibrium.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  11. al-Ameda says:

    Yeah the airlines can be a pain, but I find the public to be a bigger pain.

    I am much more tired of much of the traveling public than of the airlines. So many people carry on luggage that can barely fit in the overhead bins. In fact, many of these people often jam the bins, and then hold up the lines while they either (1) try to jam the luggage in or (2) extricate their oversized luggage. There are many more examples I could cite here, but for me, the airlines irritate me a lot less than inconsiderate travelers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  12. Ben says:

    @qtip:
    @Neil Hudelson:

    I’m well aware of those options, but I’ve never had the chance. Maybe things have changed since the last time I flew (generally around once a year), but there’s usually only a handful of those seats on the plane (emergency exit row and such), and they’ve always been sold out by the time I booked a ticket. In fact, they seem to be the very first seats to sell out on every flight. I’ve never had the opportunity to get one. Nor a bulkhead seat. Those are always taken very very far in advance.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. Gustopher says:

    @al-Ameda: the massive amounts of carry on luggage got worse when the airlines started charging for checked bags.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  14. Gustopher says:

    This is probably a situation where government regulation would help. Without government standards, the free market will innovate with smaller seats until it becomes dangerous (cram people too tight, and people will start being a..holes — do you blame the people who are a..holes or the people who crammed them in too tight knowing this would happen?)

    I’m thinking test dummies representing an American male, 1.5-2.0 standard deviations above average height and weight, and requiring that they can sit without touching their neighbor and that seats in front can recline without touching their knees.

    And then our fine airlines can innovate away on new and exciting ways to cram seats in while maintaining that minimum level of personal space.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  15. qtip says:

    @Ben:

    Weird, that’s not been my experience at all.

    In 2012, I had “silver” status on United so I was able to select Economy Plus at checkin (i.e. 24 hours before flight time). I took about 20 flights that year and was able to get Economy Plus on every flight.

    This year, I have “gold” status on United and can select Economy Plus for free at time of booking. I’ve managed to get it on every one of my flights, again around 20 flights for the year.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. michael reynolds says:

    I’m trying to avoid sounding insufferable, but I’m just done with coach. I travel front of the plane or I don’t travel. It’s absurdly expensive, obviously, so I travel less than I might otherwise. The only exception is Jet Blue which doesn’t offer a first class but has a relatively humane coach – if you can get the exit row aisle or some other premium seat.

    My wife and I both do anything we can to stay on Virgin America. Their San Francisco terminal is great – multiple Peets for coffee, actual restaurants with actual food, and tons of electrical outlets.

    As for the passengers, I have long advocated replacing useless high school math classes with teaching people how to get on and off a fu**ing plane in reasonable order.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  17. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    As for the passengers, I have long advocated replacing useless high school math classes with teaching people how to get on and off a fu**ing plane in reasonable order.

    Yes Michael, but you, and many others in line behind me, must wait while I try to extract my mini-fridge and portable air-conditioning unit from the overhead bin. And, no, I’m not going to wait until the line clears before I get my stuff down.

    Seriously, I see this kind of stuff nearly every time I fly – many people are just selfish.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  18. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Airline Passengers Are Revolting

    You said it. They stink on ice!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYpYs9GBXwY

    Mel. what a guy!

    (1 MM on American, +4 MM on Delta. Physical miles, baby! and just transferred loyalty to United. If it’s under 8 hours, I can tolerate most anything.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. qtip says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Wow, 5M is a lot of BIS miles! If we assume 500mph, that’s over a year of actual flying time.

    There is one person on the FlyerTalk forums that just hit 15MM.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Rafer Janders says:

    As much as we like to complain about the airlines here, Andrew Exum is right: “Passengers have only themselves to blame for this. They’ve been clear their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd priority is low fares.”

    Well, partly, but this has rapidly become self-reinforcing. As the airline experience has gotten worse, the low fares have become a priority partly because so many people realize that they’re not getting anything for their money beyond getting to the destination on time (and often not even that).

    If I know it’s going to suck, of course I’m going to want to pay as little as possible. And because I’m paying as little as possible, it’s going to suck. And because it’s going to suck, I’m going to want to pay as little as possible…and so ever downwards we spiral, but always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  21. SC_Birdflyte says:

    For a lot of people, there is little or no choice, even for short-haul travel. We’ve let our passenger rail deteriorate to the minimum level of sustainability (except in NE, some routes out of Chicago, and Southern California). I’ve relatively lucky, at least for trips to Washington or New York. There are several Amtrak trains that cross South Carolina, so I can usually catch one of those.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  22. Rafer Janders says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Additionally, most flights now offer you the ability to secure the bulkhead seat for anywhere from $15 to $50.

    No, most flights offer a very few people that opportunity (or, rather, they offer the opportunity to everyone, but it’s an opportunity only a few can avail themselves of). Once those seats are taken, everyone else is stuck.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. qtip says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Not to be too much of a United cheerleader here..but there are a lot of Economy Plus seats, perhaps 40% of the economy cabin? And the price is usually $40-$50 each way for domestic US flights. Yes, it’s not free which limits who can afford it, but it is nowhere close to First class rates and gives enough leg room that I’m comfortable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Rafer Janders says:

    @qtip:

    And the price is usually $40-$50 each way for domestic US flights.

    Well, it’s $40-$50 extra on top of the ticket already paid. Maybe it’s my personality, but I’m constitutionally averse to being nickel and dimed, to being charged extra for something that used to be taken as a basic part of the service. This isn’t a convenience they’re offering – they degraded the rest of their service, and then started tacking on a premium so that they treat you merely decently.

    Even though I can afford to pay, I won’t, because I really object as a consumer, as an American and as a human being to our increasingly multi-tiered by price society. Comfortable legroom should be available for all, as part of the basic price. I don’t want to buy my way to comfort at everyone else’s expense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  25. Tony W says:

    @al-Ameda:

    people often jam the bins

    I have told many airlines that the first one to rip out the overhead bins will have my eternal business.

    I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a 95-pound-soaking-wet passenger need help lifting three heavy items up into the cramped overhead bins so that they could save 25 bucks on checked-baggage fees – all while 87 people are lined up, waiting to find their seats.

    Oh, and repeat the process on the way out of the plane… usually they try to unload it themselves and drop it on my shoulder on the way down.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @qtip:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Wow, 5M is a lot of BIS miles! If we assume 500mph, that’s over a year of actual flying time.

    There is one person on the FlyerTalk forums that just hit 15MM.

    Yeah… I joke that I think that I have the same health concerns as astronauts.

    Not much atmosphere up there to block cosmic radiation and its ill effects. And, I’m pretty well strapped onto a tank of fuel with no control as well.

    Still, if that cell phone that was glued to my ear for a few decades hasn’t given me brain cancer, I’m probably going to make it OK.

    :)

    I can listen to people whine all the time, but air travel rocks.

    +500 MHP, and the only thing holding you up is … fast(er) air ?

    How cool is that !!??! Europe, South America, Asia… YES !

    It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”

    “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. Its knack lies in learning to throw yourself at the ground and miss. … Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties.”

    I am glad to say, I have had a great track record of “missing”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. EddieinCA says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I’m with you. I’m Executive Platinum on American, and Platinum Medallion on Delta. And if I am flying personally and can’t get upgraded, I change the dates until at minimum I can get upgraded to coach plus. Those extra two inches make a huge different.

    But 90% of the time, a company is paying for me to fly, so I’m business or first. I’ve gotten completely spoiled.

    And ditto on Virgin Airlines. Additionally, most of the big International Carriers (BA, Air India, KLM, Ibera, Air Emirates, Air New Zealand, etc.) are pretty awesome too. Of course, most of them are flying 747 or 777′s so it’s a huge difference than the cramed 727, 727 and small Airbus and MD’s out there domestically.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. al-Ameda says:

    @Tony W:

    I have told many airlines that the first one to rip out the overhead bins will have my eternal business.

    You can count me in on THAT too.
    People who jam the lines while trying to extricate their oversized baggage should be waitlisted for subsequent air travel.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. Grewgills says:

    @Tony W:

    I have told many airlines that the first one to rip out the overhead bins will have my eternal business.

    Then all the carry on luggage would go under the seats and even less leg room

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0