I thought I was just fantasizing about passengers standing during airline flights, strapped in like people held against the sides of a spinning amusement park ride. But I’m way behind the profit maximizers at the airlines. Standup seating or something close to it could become real as long as people are willing to save money by standing up. This isn’t hard to imagine at all. Standing in line is routine shopper behavior these days, covered as important news and evidence of the health of our economy.
So what if getting that bargain on Black Friday, for example, comes at a price to your feet and body? It's the bargain that matters.
The airline industry would be happy to oblige with a new low-price opportunity. There are logistics to work out like compartments for baggage, potty breaks, etc. But creative minds motivated by profit usually find a way.
The only thing that may be holding the airlines back is that there is actually a federal seat standard. It’s a performance safety standard, meaning it measures the effect of a standard on a safety outcome—in this case, whether the airline cabin can be evacuated in 90 seconds or less with half the exits blocked.
Really? This is not information that I’ve ever known before. In all the times I’ve flown, while I have imagined emergencies, I never gave much thought to how exactly everyone would evacuate and how long it would take.
Now that I have, I don’t believe the seating that’s common now can meet this 90-second standard. Maybe it could be done by a planeload of passengers who’d had a proper evacuation process explained to them, and maybe rehearsed it.
The routine safety instructions I’ve heard on every flight refer to evacuation only in an offhand way. The flight attendant asks that you locate the exit nearest to you should you have to leave the plane, and most passengers aren't even paying attention.
Seems to me there’s a lot more to be said. Like don’t all rush into the aisles at once and, leave your stuff behind!
The airlines, in fact, do conduct mock evacuations to prove they can meet the standard. But they do this with a planeload of people on the ground who have been brought in specifically to evacuate, and they know it. In a real emergency, panicked passengers might very well rush the aisles and try to grab their possessions, despite instructions they might be getting at that moment.
But let’s get real about the fact that Americans are growing in size while the seat sizes are shrinking. Women with big busts, natural or enhanced; men with big chests and shoulders, from fat or gym mania or both; and tall people. Then there are overweight people, with big bellies and big butts.
Flyers with these body types struggle to maneuver their bodies into the rows that contain their seats. And that’s with the seat sizes common today. A full plane with its share of over-sized people in the newer, smaller seats, evacuated in 90 seconds, unrehearsed? Hard to believe it could be done.
All that said, there’s little doubt that the trend is to seats as small as the airlines can get away with. I learned from an article in the Los AngelesTimes that a major airline, name unknown, is “considering” offering a lower fare if you are willing to give up some legroom. They are rumored to be considering an “Economy Minus” special fare with legroom of around 30 inches.
Actually, it’s chest room you’d be giving up: that’s the way the airlines measure the space between rows. They call it “pitch” and define it as the distance between the back of your seat and the back of the set in front of you. So it was reduced pitch that I noticed on my recent flight to Chicago on American Airlines (link to previous blog). For comfortable reading, I needed to get my book another inch away from my eyes. I had never had this problem before. Reduced pitch also reduces legroom, of course.
Why stop at 30 inches? The L.A. Times article says Spirit Airlines already has seats with a pitch of 28 inches. Meanwhile, Flyersrights.org, a non-profit that represents airline passengers, would like to see a federal seating standard of 35 inches minimum pitch, and an 18-inch minimum width.
I have no doubt the industry would strenuously oppose any standard beyond the existing safety standard and would trumpet the mantra of consumer choice as a cover for their goal of maximizing profits.
But someone in Congress or the Transportation Department ought to be asking about the consequences of setting a new bottom fare price based on willingness to endure discomfort. Right now, people who play astronomical prices for First Class, who comprise 21% of the people on a typical plane, occupy 40% of all the space. Will that become the only option for bosomy woman and big-chested gym rats? How much will it cost if you just want enough space to read a book? ##