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Friday, October 21, 2016

Americans are in the dumps about their future. What does that have to do with legroom in economy class? Everything.

The middle class sees its stature shrinking in the global pecking order and in a culture that favors money over well-being. There can be no better example for this than the indignities of flying economy.

Surely you heard the story about the United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver that was diverted to Chicago after two passengers got into a fight over legroom.

A man had deployed a “knee defender,” an obnoxious device that prevents the seat in front from going back. Several airlines, United included, ban this contraption, but the man refused to remove it. The woman sitting in front of him then threw a cup of water at him. Both were thrown off the plane in Chicago.

In a more peaceful scenario, the man would have removed that stupid device when asked. The woman could have found her inner Zen voice telling her to move aside when someone acts like a jerk. Neither took the high road, so a planeload of passengers — most also scrunched into child-sized leg space — was greatly inconvenienced.

Surveyed air travelers say that crammed leg space bothers them more than the extra fees and delays, according to The Washington Post. So you’d think that our free enterprise system would offer roomier alternatives.

There are already market solutions, of a kind. Many airlines now sell enhanced space for, say, 30-odd bucks more. (That the combative passengers had both paid for extra square inches may have made them feel doubly aggrieved.)

But Wall Street rewards airlines that shoehorn the most passengers into the smallest areas. The industry calls this “densification.”

Sure enough, the average space between seats has fallen from around 34 inches before 2001 to about 31 inches now. Seats are themselves getting slimmer, and more are being tacked on to the rows.

A moment of respectful silence for flight attendants, please.

What can passengers do about this?

Ben Baldanza, the chief executive of no-frills Spirit Airlines, offers this blunt advice: “You don’t get a Mercedes S-Class for a Ford Fusion price. If you want more legroom, go pay for it at another airline.”

Fair enough. And stuffing people in has helped Spirit chalk the highest profit margins in the industry. Investors, meanwhile, have punished airlines that give more space, such as JetBlue.

So why aren’t the masses taking Baldanza’s advice and fleeing to his competitors?

The answer is that Americans have been trained to buy stuff on the basis of price only. Go ask for flight information on Expedia, a travel website. Up comes a list of options that one can sort by departure time, arrival time, duration or price. The default is “price.”

Nowhere are there data on breathing room or other niceties. Yet if personal space matters more to many travelers than the lowest price, why isn’t that information part of the sorting process?

Back in the Mad Men era, airlines bragged about their high level of service, from meals on trays to luxurious seating. Airline deregulation started the decline of such amenities. One of its goals was to encourage cheaper seats, and that it did.

But the shrinking of comfort levels accelerated decades later. It happened without a middle-class revolt, in part because our price-obsessed culture has dropped quality — whether for a sweater or for a flight to Hawaii — as a major factor in making a purchase.

No wonder ordinary Americans are feeling physically big and socially small in air travel. Fortunately, the solution is in their hands.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

Photo: Douglas Paul Perkins via Wikimedia Commons

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  • James Bowen

    Excellent article. One of the problems with the airlines is that every time they are in financial trouble they are bailed out by the Federal Government. That is also part of why they can get away with what they do. I for one would like to see us build a high speed rail network, and I mean really high speed (using magnetic levitation technology). Such trains could theoretically move as fast as jet airliners.

    • Independent1

      I don’t disagree with the final premise of your post, but why would you suppose that the airlines might often be in financial trouble and need government assistance to bail them out?? Exactly for the main premise of this aritcle: Americans expect airlines to fly them to place at fares that are unprofitable. As the article points out, there aren’t many Americans who shop for an airline ticket on anything other than the lowest price. So personally, I don’t consider that a “problem with the airlines”; it’s a fact a of life – a company can’t stay in business if people refuse to pay the true costs of what a company needs to remain profitable and in business.

      • James Bowen

        It has been awhile, a little over a decade ago there were a number of Federal bailouts of the airlines. People were apprehensive about flying after 9/11, and the airlines got in deep trouble since many people stopped buying tickets. Some would have gone bankrupt had it not been for bailouts, and I for one think the government should have let them go bankrupt. Also, airlines did not used to cram people in like sardines. Surely they must have made a profit back then. I am very, very skeptical that their treating passengers like cattle is what makes them profitable. It has actually turned me off from them. I drive or take trains whenever I can, even if I am going across the country.

  • Billie

    Take an Iberia airlines flight between Madrid and Malaga Spain or a BA airlines between London and Barcelona and and you will be squeezed to death. On Iberia I had an aisle seat and the captain had just turned off the seat belt sign when the window seat woman had to go to the bathroom. We had just left the terminal. What’s with these people? I wanted to slap her silly. If you buy your seats through an American airline you can’t pick your seat for a foreign airline. I want a window seat the next time. Both flights I took were very short, Couldn’t they hold it a few minutes. I realize that I have rambled on but this article struck a nerve.

  • adp3d

    Hah! Call it what it is…steerage class. Not only do Americans want it cheap, they want it right now fast. There actually was a time when flying was pleasurable. One didn’t half to half undress to board, one could take a reasonable amount of luggage. Decent meals were served, people could move about on the plane. You could get a ticket booked by your local travel agent, you knew how much it cost and you could count on the plane leaving on time and your luggage would go with you. Deregulation totally ruined it.

  • Steve Rogers

    If the 17th Amendment could be repealed, the 16th probably wouldn’t last long either.

  • Wayneo

    The airlines have lost my business. I used to fly three or four times a year but now I refuse fly. Now I drive, even if it is across the country or I don’t go.