Airline passengers are being packed into planes “like sardines,” says Sen. Chuck Schumer. So he wants the Federal Aviation Administration to set minimum seat-size guidelines. The point, Schumer suggested, is to right an injustice: “It’s just plain unfair that a person gets charged for extra inches that were once standard.”
It’s a crowd-pleasing proposal that might also have some safety benefits. But like so many alleged giveaways for today’s harried travelers, this one won’t come free.
Over the past decade, airlines have become profitable partly by packing more fliers onto each plane. Although that hasn’t always been comfortable for the passengers, it works in their interest by enabling carriers to offer more affordable flights. Reconfiguring cabins will threaten that model and impose new costs that will be passed onto customers.
There’s no question that economy-class passengers have less room. Between 1985 and 2014, the widest pitch offered by United Airlines shrunk from 36 inches to 31. Discount carriers like Spirit Airlines have narrowed the space to as little as 28 inches.
What caused the shrinkage? Competition, and the rise of “low-cost carriers.” Passengers can’t resist them: They make up 26 percent of the North American airline market and play a crucial role in holding down prices.
So if the FAA starts requiring more legroom, could Spirit be as profitable, and offer fares as cheap, if the distance between seats was 31 inches rather than 28? Based on the 26-row configuration posted to the website SeatGuru, such a change would likely force the airline to lose at least two rows of seats. With oil prices low, perhaps Spirit could manage such a challenge. But when they increase, that extra legroom will threaten low fares.
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. The conclusion: $33 per inch, or $13.33 per degree of recline.
Skift’s analysis shows that the passenger load factor – basically, the seats occupied by paying customers – in economy-plus cabins averages 36 percent, leading it to conclude that “passengers don’t value extra room as much as low fares.”
Will they value that room if it improves safety? Last year, FAA researchers conceded that they lacked data on whether airplanes with less than 31 inches of pitch can be evacuated safely in an emergency. But with the accident rate for commercial aviation far below that for cars, buses and subways, it’s questionable whether air travelers would be willing to pay a premium for what would likely be a marginal improvement in safety.
Either way, Senator Schumer should remind the flying public that regulators don’t mandate prices. If they start mandating seat sizes, passengers might wish they did.
Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture and business.