The general public loves to hate the airlines. Unfortunately, much of that ire is the fault of the airlines themselves. Among the numerous complaints are non-refundable tickets, oversold flights, baggage fees, and the crowded cabins— made worse with uncomfortable seats.
In the post-deregulation world, two things happened with respect to seats: People got bigger, and seats got closer. Seat pitch—the measurement between the back of the seat in front of you and your seat—has steadily shrunk, especially in economy class.
Running an airline is an incredibly expensive venture, far more so than most businesses. Once an airplane leaves the gate, the empty seats can’t be sold—there’s no clearance rack or discount shelf. The airlines argue that the layout and discomfort of the cabin is simply a reflection of what the flying public demands and will tolerate.
Given that flights are flying with record load factors, they must be more right than wrong. More than 70 percent of air travelers only fly once a year, and by some measures, that number is over 80 percent. From the airlines’ perspective, such infrequent travelers are a bit of a captive audience, and because we as a society are so price-sensitive, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for one carrier to stick its neck out and increase cabin comfort at the risk of lost revenue and profit.
That could be about to change, however, as the FAA funding bill that has passed the House includes a mandate for a new, greater minimum seat pitch, thus offering all of us a bit more leg room. (There is also talk about making the seats a bit wider, but I’m not sure the widening of the waistline will get as much attention as more legroom.)
The airlines have quietly told Congress that they’re willing to hold back on fighting seat pitch as long as the rules are industry wide and don’t single out any one company by name. Carriers, will however, be pointed out by default, as Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier are known to have some of the most cramped cabins. Forcing these carriers to remove some seats will also force them to be more price competitive with the bigger carriers.
But there’s more at play here. The big issue is passenger evacuation in an emergency. The FARs state that a manufacturer has to certify that an airplane can be evacuated in 90 seconds with one exit blocked. Apparently, some of those certification tests include computer modeling. If this is the case, and there really is concern that a 767 can’t be evacuated in 90 seconds, the potential is there for an incredibly expensive recertification process and/or modifications to the planes. It’s a no-brainer to agree to take some seats out while also addressing one of the most common complaints.
If this rule goes through—and that’s a big “if”—it won’t take immediate effect. The airlines will likely have a couple of years to comply. Seat maps will change, and yes, air fares will increase, though marginally.
On the other hand, there will be plenty of spare seats in the hangar if someone gets sick.—Chip Wright