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DonRocks

Reclining Your Airline Seat - What Is Right, and What Is Wrong?

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A few days ago, I tweeted this:

"Serious question: Why can't a healthy person turn around, and say to the passenger behind them, 'Hi, would you mind if I reclined my seat?'"

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And I got two very different responses:

1) "If the person in front asked if I minded if they reclined their seat, I'd say that I did. Seats too damned close now."

2) "Because I purchased a reclinable seat. It's my option. Your problem is with the airline, not me."

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My original tweet (which was hindered by the 140-character limitation) had nothing to do with reclining seats, and everything to do with common courtesy - it was not unlike asking, "What's so hard about holding a door open for the person behind you?" However, it clearly touched some very raw nerves. Both of the replies are reasonable, and yet, both display a degree of selfishness.

This is a systematic, industry-wide problem that must be stopped - and if it takes government intervention to stop it, then so be it. I don't know if it's the airlines "fault," but they're doing almost nothing to help the situation. Flying in this day and age is a miserable, unpleasant experience, and is turning normal people into monsters. I view this one, simple issue as being extremely important (and now I'm talking about the actual legroom, not merely "being polite") - the situation has created a war-like, every-man-for-himself mentality, and nobody has any concern for their fellow man or neighbor - it has become Me, Me, Me!

But who can blame them? The situation in the skies is untenable. It is cruel, and it is humiliating. Last week, I got the center seat in an three-seat aisle - to my right was an obese woman; to my left was a morbidly obese woman (probably 400 pounds). It was physically impossible for her to stay in her seat, and when she fell asleep, it got even worse - I was wadded up like a roly-poly for almost five hours, and in a great deal of pain when I limped off of the airplane. Yet, I felt more sorry for her than I did for me - she didn't want this any more than I did.

Back to my original tweet: I choose not to recline my seat, but if I were going to, I would *always* turn around and give the person some notice, and do it gently - I once had a laptop that was cracked from someone turbo-reclining their seat into me; all it would have taken to prevent that was some common sense and decency.

The situation has made people *hate* other people. People they don't even know. And I refuse to let it turn me into one of "them." That said, if someone speed-reclines into me with no warning, and knocks over a drink, or breaks a laptop, they're going to hear about it. Yes, it's the airlines' fault (the passengers certainly didn't ask for this unwanted situation), but it's also the individuals' fault for letting this situation turn them into selfish, terrible people who care only about themselves, and don't display even a modicum of courtesy for their neighbor's well-being.

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Yes, it's the airlines' fault (the passengers certainly didn't ask for this unwanted situation), 

Not really.  It actually is the passengers' fault, in that they look at only one thing when booking an airline seat, and that is the cheapest fare. They also don't look beyond the first page of the display in whatever booking engine they are using, which displays based on cheapness. The result is that there is endless and inexorable competitive pressure on the airlines to reduce fares by whatever means they can, to stay competitive and capture business from the flying public that is only looking at fares.  Reducing seat pitch (distance between rows of seats) to the absolute minimum is one of the ways to do this and that's what they have done.  Spirit is the worst at 28".  I hope it wasn't Spirit you were flying, but their seats don't recline anyway -- it would be impossible with a 28" pitch.

There is a long history of airlines occasionally offering a better product (more room) at a higher price, only to give up when the market doesn't respond.  Currently, some of the legacy carriers are offering "premium economy" seating in part of the economy cabin on some routes, but it costs more and you have to take the trouble to know it's there and book it, which few users of booking engines do.

In short, you get what you are willing to pay for.

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Eventually there will be an option for even cheaper fares where you can be anesthetized and stacked like logs with other passengers in the back of the plane.

Airlines suck.

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Not really.  It actually is the passengers' fault, in that they look at only one thing when booking an airline seat, and that is the cheapest fare. They also don't look beyond the first page of the display in whatever booking engine they are using, which displays based on cheapness. The result is that there is endless and inexorable competitive pressure on the airlines to reduce fares by whatever means they can, to stay competitive and capture business from the flying public that is only looking at fares.  Reducing seat pitch (distance between rows of seats) to the absolute minimum is one of the ways to do this and that's what they have done.  Spirit is the worst at 28".  I hope it wasn't Spirit you were flying, but their seats don't recline anyway -- it would be impossible with a 28" pitch.

There is a long history of airlines occasionally offering a better product (more room) at a higher price, only to give up when the market doesn't respond.  Currently, some of the legacy carriers are offering "premium economy" seating in part of the economy cabin on some routes, but it costs more and you have to take the trouble to know it's there and book it, which few users of booking engines do.

In short, you get what you are willing to pay for.

The airlines are doing an extremely poor job of advertising that there are options in-between flying coach - which amounts to being little more than cargo - and paying triple and quadruple the price for what I consider to be a merely "normal" seating arrangement. I refuse to pay $2,000 for a few hours of extra legroom instead of $500 for a few hours of discomfort.

Customers as a group probably are partially responsible for this, as they've traditionally shopped for airline tickets like they were buying gasoline - the cheapest price in sight gets the deal. But the airlines have responded miserably, and have left passengers with a "pay through the nose, or suffer" decision.

Case in point: Two days ago, I had a connection to make coming home. Two flights were leaving at nearly the same time, and there were plenty of seats available on both flights. I asked the agent if I could take a flight into Reagan National instead of Marshall BWI, and she said, "No, not without a change fee, and paying the difference in ticket cost." She made me walk down to the "customer service" phone bank and call central booking, and I was flat-out told that there were no exceptions, and that I'd have to pay both a change fee and a difference in cost, which amounted to about $700. It didn't used to be like this - they would accommodate you, and try to make the change; no longer. Customers are treated like fungible goods - like grains of rice - any single, individual grain no longer matters.

My hatred for the airlines is growing each year, and I try to avoid flying whenever possible at this point because they no longer care about the customers as individuals. I would also be interested in seeing a graph of how much it costs to fly in 2015 vis-a-vis 2005 vis-a-vis 1995.

It is disgusting what they pay flight attendants. They make $15-20 per hour, but *only for the hours spent in the air*. The time driving, waiting around, setting up and cleaning the airplane, scrubbing the toilets after landing ... no pay.

"Here's Why The Airline Industry Is In For A Rough Ride" by Laura Lorenzetti on fortune.com

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The airlines are doing an extremely poor job of advertising that there are options in-between flying coach - which amounts to being little more than cargo - and paying triple and quadruple the price for what I consider to be a merely "normal" seating arrangement. I refuse to pay $2,000 for a few hours of extra legroom instead of $500 for a few hours of discomfort.

Customers as a group probably are partially responsible for this, as they've traditionally shopped for airline tickets like they were buying gasoline - the cheapest price in sight gets the deal. But the airlines have responded miserably, and have left passengers with a "pay through the nose, or suffer" decision.

Case in point: Two days ago, I had a connection to make coming home. Two flights were leaving at nearly the same time, and there were plenty of seats available on both flights. I asked the agent if I could take a flight into Reagan National instead of Marshall BWI, and she said, "No, not without a change fee, and paying the difference in ticket cost." She made me walk down to the "customer service" phone bank and call central booking, and I was flat-out told that there were no exceptions, and that I'd have to pay both a change fee and a difference in cost, which amounted to about $700. It didn't used to be like this - they would accommodate you, and try to make the change; no longer. Customers are treated like fungible goods - like grains of rice - any single, individual grain no longer matters.

My hatred for the airlines is growing each year, and I try to avoid flying whenever possible at this point because they no longer care about the customers as individuals. I would also be interested in seeing a graph of how much it costs to fly in 2015 vis-a-vis 2005 vis-a-vis 1995.

It is disgusting what they pay flight attendants. They make $15-20 per hour, but *only for the hours spent in the air*. The time driving, waiting around, setting up and cleaning the airplane, scrubbing the toilets after landing ... no pay.

"Here's Why The Airline Industry Is In For A Rough Ride" by Laura Lorenzetti on fortune.com

It's not the airlines that make it difficult to find the fares for better seats with more legroom.  It's the Travelocities etc. of the world who don't display them because people don't use them anyway.  You can find that info on airlines' web sites.

The reason they don't make it easy to make changes is, if they made it easy, then the business travelers who need flexibility and now buy more expensive tickets to get that flexibility would also buy cheap tickets.  Then the extra revenue the airlines now get from those business travelers would disappear, and would no longer be there to subsidize that cheap fare you got, so your cheap fares would go away and you'd have no choice but to pay more too. Maybe a lot more. Bottom line: you only get cheap fares if you forgo flexibility.  Don't buy cheap tickets and expect you can make changes -- again, you get what you pay for.  There are many fare classes on any route/flight with different fares and rules about making changes. This is called market segmentation.  Pay less, get less. Don't hate the airlines -- they are responding to the demands of the many different "markets" they serve on each and every flight. By purchasing the cheapest ticket you are placing yourself in the bottom category, and getting a very good deal in terms of price.

Here are data on the changes in air fares since 1995.  Note that average fares in real dollars (constant dollars) have actually dropped; even with fees, that's still a good deal. Other than electronics, these's very little in this world that can say that.  What has happened to the price of, say, housing in DC since 1995? Or cars, or restaurant meals, or just about anything?

I trust you're joking when you suggest you believe the flight attendants set up the airplane, clean it, and clean the toilets.

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I have a friend who is 6'5".  A number of years ago we sat next to each other on a full coach flight where he was assigned the middle seat.  Soon after taking off the person in the seat in front of him pulled his seat lever and reclined all the way back.  It hit my friend's knees.  Several times both my friend and I politely asked the person who had reclined all the way if we couldn't "compromise" and, perhaps, he would only go back one "notch" which would help my 6'5" friend.  Essentially he said no, he had bought his seat and felt that he had the right to recline-it was his "space."

Besides it was a red eye from LAX to IAD and he planned on sleeping.

Over the next five hours my 6'5" friend had to cross his legs a number of times.  As I type this I am certain that the person who refused to compromise and insisted on their seat being all the way back did not get very much sleep.

In fact his back probably became a bit sore from my friend's knees knocking him in the back.  I also remember my friend resting a blanket on his knee so when he crossed it it would not bother him.  Only the person trying to sleep in front of him with their seat all the way back.

Of course today airlines no longer give you a blanket on a coast to coast flight but that is another matter.

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Is economy plus even more expensive in constant dollars than coach of 30-40 years ago?  If you're willing to go back to the old ways, it seems like there are some considerably more pleasant options if you're willing to spend old time money.  Based on the full seating in business class and economy plus every time I fly, it seems like there is a market for paying for some luxury and leg room, but there is also a larger segment of consumers who are okay with flying as cheaply as possible even if it's a somewhat miserable experience.

If you're not personally okay with the experience, then pay more.  But why demand market changes that would deny the steerage willing customers the option to go with the cheapest possible price?  Orbitz and just about every airline site offers me economy plus and business class upgrade options every time I shop for tickets, but right now it's hard for me to justify greatly increasing the cost of a trip just for comfort.  I have made one recent concession to comfort "“ I used to fly mostly United but will no longer fly United long haul, their new seat design is awful.

As for reclining seats "“ putting anything that would be at risk in case of a recline at your own risk.  I'd prefer for short haul flights just to do away with reclining altogether, but don't hate the player and don't expect courtesy from strangers (who won't even bother to buy two seats when they obviously need to or restrain their horrible seat kicking children).  If you're going to complain about someone else's reclining to the flight attendant, do not expect a sympathetic hearing.

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I have a friend who is 6'5".  A number of years ago we sat next to each other on a full coach flight where he was assigned the middle seat.  Soon after taking off the person in the seat in front of him pulled his seat lever and reclined all the way back.  It hit my friend's knees.  Several times both my friend and I politely asked the person who had reclined all the way if we couldn't "compromise" and, perhaps, he would only go back one "notch" which would help my 6'5" friend.  Essentially he said no, he had bought his seat and felt that he had the right to recline-it was his "space."

If your friend is 6'5", shouldn't he have attempted mitigation by purchasing an economy plus ticket, rather than expect the person in front not to recline for a red eye?

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If your friend is 6'5", shouldn't he have attempted mitigation by purchasing an economy plus ticket, rather than expect the person in front not to recline for a red eye?  

I think by today's standards, this might be considered discriminatory.

A lot of people are talking about how expensive flying used to be, but I distinctly remember in the early-mid 80s, flying from the Greenville, SC and Charlotte, NC to Newark, round-trip, for $29, and sometimes even $19. I'm sure it was an introductory rate, but they did it for quite awhile - it was People Express for whatever that's worth.

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You can ask airlines to make special accommodations (though I'm pretty sure being tall is insufficient threshold).  But you sure as heck can't ask private citizens to accommodate the friend.

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A lot of people are talking about how expensive flying used to be, but I distinctly remember in the early-mid 80s, flying from the Greenville, SC and Charlotte, NC to Newark, round-trip, for $29, and sometimes even $19. I'm sure it was an introductory rate, but they did it for quite awhile - it was People Express for whatever that's worth. 

Wasn't worth much to People Express - they started in 1981, racked up huge operating debt (for reasons clear in your post), and were out of business by 1987.

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Wasn't worth much to People Express - they started in 1981, racked up huge operating debt (for reasons clear in your post), and were out of business by 1987.

And then there was Piedmont, the Trump Shuttle (remember "If our shuttle is full from New York to DC, we'll fly another plane, even if you're the only passenger?") - there were plenty of low-cost options in the 80s, and all of them are getting absorbed into large mega-airlines (refer to the U.S. Air - American merger). You know what this sounds like? The banks. The barriers to entry in this market are enormous, and although I'm not a fan of government intervention, I'm starting to think it may not be such a bad idea here.

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If your friend is 6'5", shouldn't he have attempted mitigation by purchasing an economy plus ticket, rather than expect the person in front not to recline for a red eye?  

Astrid, I know a bit about United:  I am a Million Mile Flyer and 6 time 1K who now has close to two million miles actually flown.  In the '80's and '90's (or sometime many years ago) Economy Plus didn't exist.  My friend asked for an exit row which, at one time, usually meant more room.  Those seats weren't available.

I also did not say that he (and I) asked the person not to recline.  We asked if we could compromise and the person "would only go back one "notch."  

From your perspective the person in front had the right to recline on any flight, perhaps especially on a red eye.  But my friend also had the right to cross his legs.  Especially on a red eye.  If, when he as a 6'5" passenger crossed his legs, he knocked the fully reclined seat a bit then that was part of the price that the person in front of him paid for their refusal to compromise.  

FWIW, I'm 6'1" and I really don't think Economy Plus is that spacious (pick a word).  There is, however, a lot to be said for seeking out specific seats on certain planes (i.e. row 21 on a trip 7 overwater which is directly behind the rows where the crew sleeps and has more leg room than even first class, exit row by a window seat of a three seat row behind a two seat row, exit row by a door, etc.).  One of the reasons I have so many miles on United (aside from 30+ years of heavy travel) is that I don't qualify for the equivalent of an Economy Plus seat on most other airlines.  The result is that i try to fly on United.  Having said this I used to think of Southwest as a cattle airline.  Today, it is better than most others.

Again, there was a time when Economy Plus didn't exist, On most airlines traditional coach seats had a bit more leg room.

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And then there was Piedmont, the Trump Shuttle (remember "If our shuttle is full from New York to DC, we'll fly another plane, even if you're the only passenger?") - there were plenty of low-cost options in the 80s, and all of them are getting absorbed into large mega-airlines (refer to the U.S. Air - American merger). You know what this sounds like? The banks. The barriers to entry in this market are enormous, and although I'm not a fan of government intervention, I'm starting to think it may not be such a bad idea here. 

Ryan Air is an interesting experience.  So was World Airways from BWI to Gatwick in the mid '80's for $299 roundtrip.  As I type this, given the 30 years, that actually doesn't sound nearly as cheap as it was at the time.

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And then there was Piedmont, the Trump Shuttle (remember "If our shuttle is full from New York to DC, we'll fly another plane, even if you're the only passenger?") - there were plenty of low-cost options in the 80s, and all of them are getting absorbed into large mega-airlines (refer to the U.S. Air - American merger). You know what this sounds like? The banks. The barriers to entry in this market are enormous, and although I'm not a fan of government intervention, I'm starting to think it may not be such a bad idea here. 

Oh how soon we forget!

Those low cost options resulted from the deregulation of airlines that took place in 1978, i.e. getting rid of government intervention that ruled the airline industry up to then (all fares, all routes, the works).  The regulated (government intervention) era up until then was an era of high fares, sclerotic route structures, and grossly overpaid workforces that fed back to the high fares.  Deregulation led to fare wars and endless bankruptcies of airlines; every airline but Southwest, which only expanded out of Texas after deregulation and had unique advantages, went bankrupt at one time or another after deregulation.

I vividly recall a study I did for the Indianapolis Airport in the late 70's -- I was shocked to discover that Delta's baggage handlers there were making the current equivalent of $90K a year to fling bags.  That was typical of how things were under the era of government intervention, when the Civil Aeronautics Board decided where you could fly and what you could charge, and everybody pretty much paid the same fare.  Nobody wants to go back to that.

Contrary to popular opinion, airlines are not eleemosynary institutions -- you cannot provide service between, say, Greenville and Newark for $29 a seat and stay in business, even in 1974.  People Express found that out the hard way, and it is just one example of many.  The bills have to be paid, and the investors need to get some sort of return.  You are not entitled to having airline investors (including me) endlessly subsidize your travel.  Those days are over.

Piedmont and the shuttles were never low-fare operations.  Shuttle fares were high in their times and the service was profitable.  By the way, it was Eastern Airlines (ever heard of them?) that pioneered the shuttle (1961) with the guarantee to roll out another airplane if necessary, not Trump.  Originally the main aircraft were Lockheed Super Constellations (remember those), later followed by Electras with the Connies as backups. Eastern later (1989) sold the shuttle to Trump in a bid to raise cash to stave off bankruptcy, which it ultimately failed to do. Trump never made money and finally defaulted on his loans, in typical Trump fashion.  Citibank took it back and finally USAir bought it.  Pan Am started its own shuttle which lasted until Pan Am went bankrupt.  Eastern, along with People Express, ended up being owned by Frank Lorenzo, who eventually folded them and New York Air into Continental, which after the shakeout became one of the better airlines under Gordon Bethune.  Continental finally took over United (out of bankruptcy), kept the name, and continues today.

Santayana was right.  Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

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There is, however, a lot to be said for seeking out specific seats on certain planes 

Totally agree with this.  It's worth researching.  In addition to carrier websites check out seatguru.com. Be aware of the user comments, though: they're as full of pissy complaints as any other review site.

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Oh how soon we forget!

Those low cost options resulted from the deregulation of airlines that took place in 1978, i.e. getting rid of government intervention that ruled the airline industry up to then (all fares, all routes, the works).

The first time I ever flew in my life was in 1979 - it's possible that you're one of the few people here old enough to actually remember government intervention. At some point in the near future, nobody will be left who remembers, so now's a good time to speak your piece and record your wisdom. It obviously sounds like you have some sort of specific expertise on this subject.

All I know is that I've been flying now for 35 years, and I hate it now more than I ever have.

There are numerous examples of non-regulated industries that are broken, and numerous examples of regulated industries that aren't. Call me a "capitalist until it's proven that capitalism doesn't work," and right now, whatever amount of unbridled capitalism we have with the airline industry simply isn't working. Like the highway system, the airline system is vital to our national interest and cannot be left unregulated. One thing I do not pretend is to have any expertise on this specific subject (likewise telephone deregulation) - I'm interested in your thoughts much more than I am your condescension. Flying isn't working, the majority of people hate it, and if people like you don't speak up, then I promise you that we're "doomed to repeat the past" at some point in the future, and as of this moment, I can't wait for that day to occur; I remain open for you to convince me otherwise.

One possible solution is that the government can pass laws requiring private industry to meet certain standards, and let the airlines figure out how to do it. For example, it's illegal to have a three-seat row contain more than 750 pounds of people (yes, that would require self-reporting weight). Or, it's illegal to have seat pitch (pitch? really?) less than a certain amount relative to a person's height (and yes, that would require self-reporting height). Those are two laws that would make peoples' lives easier, and can be easily figured out by a computerized seating algorithm - this is my field, and I'm certain that a decent program could be developed in less than one man-year (that is, of course, just writing the code for the program given the input parameters). Why has nobody ever proposed this? That poor, obese woman sitting next to me suffers enough humiliation in everyday life, and she should at least be accommodated, perhaps by the Americans With Disabilities Act, by not having to be shoved into a space that is more suited to a cattle car - it's cruel and dehumanizing, and no, she shouldn't be forced to buy a second seat. If people with wheelchairs must be accommodated without charge, then so should the morbidly obese and the extremely tall.

I'm also going to point out that just because government regulation failed in the 1960s, doesn't mean some type of regulation will fail in the 2010s - it's an entirely different landscape. And yes, the government can learn from whatever mistakes it made in the past. Industries are going to be regulated, of that I am certain - I have no desire to live in Galt's Gulch, which doesn't work in reality: Left unregulated, the Grand Canyon would be crammed full of condominiums, factories would be spewing toxins into the environment which they do not own, innocent children would be getting slaughtered by guns on a regular basis, and I want no part of that world.

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My friend asked for an exit row which, at one time, usually meant more room.  Those seats weren't available.  

I see, yes, that is pretty horrible for your friend.  Luckily, that is one aspect of flying that's actually gotten better over time.

My own opinion of flying does grow lower and lower every year.  Right now, it's at least a 800 mile drive to even consider flying.  Shorter than that and it's not worth the hassle.  The TSA section seems to be getting a little better, but the new immigration/customs process is just awful.

United's current seats do seem to be uniquely (for now) terrible in my experience.  They're just terribly engineered - unless you firmly your foot on the ground and use your legs to push against the back of the seat at all time, you will start to slip down the seat immediately.  It's really hard on the back almost immediately.  I was suffering back pain and strain that I've never suffered on any prior flight and couldn't get any sleep at all (of course, I had to learn this on a 14 hour flight to China).  So after spending my life being that person who is okay with the cheapest steerage seat (even with occasional seat kicker and smoshing risks), I did find the limits of my tolerance.

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Friend flew first glass on Emirates a month ago and there was a shower. A motherfucking shower. And the "Referesher" bag was from Bulgari.

I once paid for the "A Group" boarding on a Southwest flight from Orlando. That's how I roll.

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The first time I ever flew in my life was in 1979 - it's possible that you're one of the few people here old enough to actually remember government intervention. At some point in the near future, nobody will be left who remembers, so now's a good time to speak your piece and record your wisdom. It obviously sounds like you have some sort of specific expertise on this subject.

All I know is that I've been flying now for 35 years, and I hate it now more than I ever have.

There are numerous examples of non-regulated industries that are broken, and numerous examples of regulated industries that aren't. Call me a "capitalist until it's proven that capitalism doesn't work," and right now, whatever amount of unbridled capitalism we have with the airline industry simply isn't working. Like the highway system, the airline system is vital to our national interest and cannot be left unregulated. One thing I do not pretend is to have any expertise on this specific subject (likewise telephone deregulation) - I'm interested in your thoughts much more than I am your condescension. Flying isn't working, the majority of people hate it, and if people like you don't speak up, then I promise you that we're "doomed to repeat the past" at some point in the future, and as of this moment, I can't wait for that day to occur; I remain open for you to convince me otherwise.

One possible solution is that the government can pass laws requiring private industry to meet certain standards, and let the airlines figure out how to do it. For example, it's illegal to have a three-seat row contain more than 750 pounds of people (yes, that would require self-reporting weight). Or, it's illegal to have seat pitch (pitch? really?) less than a certain amount relative to a person's height (and yes, that would require self-reporting height). Those are two laws that would make peoples' lives easier, and can be easily figured out by a computerized seating algorithm - this is my field, and I'm certain that a decent program could be developed in less than one man-year (that is, of course, just writing the code for the program given the input parameters). Why has nobody ever proposed this? That poor, obese woman sitting next to me suffers enough humiliation in everyday life, and she should at least be accommodated, perhaps by the Americans With Disabilities Act, by not having to be shoved into a space that is more suited to a cattle car - it's cruel and dehumanizing, and no, she shouldn't be forced to buy a second seat. If people with wheelchairs must be accommodated without charge, then so should the morbidly obese and the extremely tall.

I'm also going to point out that just because government regulation failed in the 1960s, doesn't mean some type of regulation will fail in the 2010s - it's an entirely different landscape. And yes, the government can learn from whatever mistakes it made in the past. Industries are going to be regulated, of that I am certain - I have no desire to live in Galt's Gulch, which doesn't work in reality: Left unregulated, the Grand Canyon would be crammed full of condominiums, factories would be spewing toxins into the environment which they do not own, innocent children would be getting slaughtered by guns on a regular basis, and I want no part of that world.

Sorry if I sounded condescending.  I don't mean it that way, but these constant rants about airlines do grow tiring after a while, to someone who has basically spent his entire life following the industry, having worked (brief stints) with two airlines and having spent many years in the airline consulting field, and having done his graduate work in transportation economics (yes there is such a thing as a PhD in transport economics).  I've probably read hundreds of rants about how bad the airlines are, from well-meaning laymen who really don't have much information or appreciation about the complexities involved.

The basic problem, as I see it, is that everyone flies so everyone thinks he is an expert on the airline industry.  This includes most journalists who write articles about the industry.  The truth is hardly anybody understands what is really going on or why we have arrived at the point we are today.  There are reasons.  I have hinted at them above.  Space doesn't allow more than a cursory discussion, but I'll have another shot at the points you made.

The short answer is you will get the level of service you are willing to pay for.  I have yet to see a single rant that shows the writer actually understands that.  Most flyers buy the cheapest ticket they can find, and then feel they should get treated substantially better and are at liberty to bellyache about it when they don't get it.   There is a disconnect here.  The result of always buying the cheap ticket is the level of service comes down to match the fare, both in the immediate case and in the long term.  Many entrepreneurs have tried over the years to start airlines offering premium service.  They have all failed.  The preferences have been revealed, and they are cheapness, which has clearly been shown to trump comfort and service.  Airline managements aren't stupid. They give the market what it shows it wants, not what it says.  Cheap is what the market has shown it wants, and so that's what it gets.  The system has come be be designed around saving costs to the maximum, in order to offer the lowest fares possible. The flying public would do itself a favor if it finally got its collective head around that.

As to government intervention, there are two kinds of that:  economic and technical.  On the technical side the government, mostly through the FAA, is extremely deeply involved in every aspect of the airline and aerospace industries -- I think most folks in DC understand about that so nothing more need be said. On the economic side, the government used to be deeply involved, but it didn't work.  Air travel was artificially expensive and not available to anything like the cross-section of folks it is today.  That's why the industry was deregulated. On balance it has been a good thing.  Far more people can get from A to B today and at extremely reasonable costs.  And the main reason it's a different "landscape" today is because of deregulation, not in spite of it.  A return to regulation simply isn't in the cards, nor should it be.

Now if you think that the government should set minimum standards for things like seat pitch, fine, but remember, it wouldn't be free. Everybody will be paying more, including those who who would rather have the lower fares.  And seats with greater pitch are already available anyway for those who want it.  They just have to pay more, which is as it should and must be.  

There is simply no way, practically speaking, to provide special seating specifically for large people. It would not only be expensive (which would have to be paid for by the rest of the traveling public) but would be a nightmare to book and allocate (however see below).  There are larger seats available on most routes, at a higher price, and if you are extremely tall or extremely fat you should save up and buy those.  You can also buy two adjacent seats and solve the your problem that way, and not impose your situation on innocent others. That's what that woman should have done, and obese people do it every day.  By the way it's not so much a computer problem as it is a physical space/design problem.  The airlines do comply with the ADA, and handle thousands of passengers with disabilities every day.

All that said, if you or anyone wants to start a movement to get the government to pass a law to force the airlines to equip every airplane with special large seats to accommodate large people, if it applies equally to all airlines then I see no problem, but understand that it will raise costs and thus fares for everybody else.  And who exactly decides who gets to sit in those seats and when?  And anyway they already have such seats -- it's called first class, or premium coach.  I suppose the government could simply force airlines to sell seats in first class cheaply to fat people.  I'm not too sure how well that would go over among the flying public at large.

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Hi JohnB-- in your opinion, what are the next steps the airlines will take to maximize the number of passengers in a plane?

I ask because I think the government should have some involvement in standardizing space for passengers. I mean we'd be sitting in each others' laps if the airlines had their way. I use the term "the airlines" because as soon as one company finds a way to make money on our misery, the others quickly follow suit.

I understand your argument about cheap fares to an extent, but at some point the argument breaks down. For example, let's say the government gets out of regulating the auto industry. The free market would eventually allow you to buy a brand new car for $5k, but it'd be made out of tongue depressors and duct tape. It'd be a race to the bottom for car manufacturers to sell cheaper and shittier cars. What good is that? And what good is it if people can't fly because their bodies can't take sitting for hours in an increasingly cramped, and for some dangerous, position?

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I mentioned above that I have almost two million miles on United, 65 trips to Europe in a ten year period and other ad nauseum fluff.  For most of the 30+ years that I was in my industry I was also a straight commission salesman paying all of my own expenses.  (title aside this is what it came down to)  This meant that it might have cost $750 to fly from Dulles to Cleveland or $850 to fly from National to Charlotte.  At some point I decided to drive when the fares were this high.  Even if I had driven from Reston to BWI (for Southwest or a competitive fare on United)  by the time I factored in that drive, the flight, renting a car and then driving X miles to where I was going it really was only an hour or two longer to drive.  It made sense.  And $500+ cheaper which allowed a hotel room and enough left over for a case of good wine.

I drove a lot.  And bought a lot of wine.

As I type this I am sipping on a glass of '04 Clio that I bought a case of after a driving trip to Sandusky, OH instead of flying.  I remember the trip, remember that I really did not want to drive.  But there were so many trips like this that the fares, rental car, etc. really added up.  That morning @5:00AM I left for a noon lunch and afternoon presentation at Cedar Point.  I was home that night by midnight and spent $500 or so buying the case of Clio from NJ.  There were a lot of trips like that.  Now, retired and with 7 or 8 years of age on the wine, I am toasting a good decision.

In retrospect if I hadn't flown so much I would have even more to drink...

'04 Clio is seriously good.

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Hi JohnB-- in your opinion, what are the next steps the airlines will take to maximize the number of passengers in a plane?

I ask because I think the government should have some involvement in standardizing space for passengers. I mean we'd be sitting in each others' laps if the airlines had their way. I use the term "the airlines" because as soon as one company finds a way to make money on our misery, the others quickly follow suit.

I understand your argument about cheap fares to an extent, but at some point the argument breaks down. For example, let's say the government gets out of regulating the auto industry. The free market would eventually allow you to buy a brand new car for $5k, but it'd be made out of tongue depressors and duct tape. It'd be a race to the bottom for car manufacturers to sell cheaper and shittier cars. What good is that? And what good is it if people can't fly because their bodies can't take sitting for hours in an increasingly cramped, and for some dangerous, position?

Thanks for asking.  It got me looking into it in more detail than I had before.

I don't foresee much change in the number of seats, because there are no "next steps" left to take.  Seat manufacturers have gotten seat backs about as streamlined (thin) as they can, so there's nothing left to do there (if you can reduce the thickness of the seat back you can reduce the pitch without reducing legroom, but that has probably already reached its limit).  Seat pitch (i.e. legroom) has been pretty stable for a while. Thus, increases in the number of pax per plane will come, if at all, from higher load factors (already pretty high) and greater number of hours of flying, but both of those are also near their limits already.

The legacy US carriers (American, Delta, United) domestic services all are at mostly 31" seat pitches in regular economy, with 30 or 32" in some aircraft. Southwest is mostly 32 with some 31. The worst case US carrier is Spirit at 28" -- those seats don't (can't) recline -- anybody who flies Spirit I pity you.  But their fares are really cheap.  Allegiant, another cheapo US carrier, is at 30."  In Europe, the two big low cost carriers, Ryanair and easyJet, are at 30 and 29 respectively.  Note that often when you see smaller pitches (e.g. 29 or 30) it is on an Airbus jet and the seats on those are slightly wider than on Boeings, which balances things out some.

Note that virtually all the US carriers have a few larger seats at a higher fare, so you can have a better service if you are willing to pay for it. And if you are an astute shopper there are always exit row and similar seats with plenty of leg room, but to get those you have to know what you are doing.  Seatguru is your friend.

Here are two somewhat extreme examples of how airlines will cater to market preferences where folks will pick up the tab for better service.  Look at this seatmap of American Airlines' 4 class transcon Airbus 321's.  These serve JFK-LAX/SFO and are used by entertainment and tech industry types. The second is this British Airways aircraft, a small narrow-body (A318) fitted out in an all business class configuration with all lie-flat seats; BA uses these exclusively between JFK and close-in London City Airport.  These show clearly what the airlines are willing to do for folks who are willing to pay.

Here's something that really puts the lie to the idea that the US carriers are so evil.  Compare the US seat pitch numbers with domestic services of, say, Lufthansa and its Germanwings low fare subsidiary, or British Airways. Germanwings is at 29; LH is at 30.  BA is mostly 30, with a very few going higher.  So the proposition that the US carriers' legroom is so bad compared with the big European names is bogus, at least for the domestic services.  

I don't think your doomsday scenario will ever happen.  Legroom is not going to go down.  If the legacies were going to reduce pitch they would have by now, but they haven't.  In particular, Spirit is becoming a serious competitive problem, particularly for American and Delta to a lesser extent.  But those carriers have not reduced pitch and fares to compete with Spirit -- they have both instituted new fares that have extreme restrictions similar to Spirit's fares.  If you choose those you are very likely to, among other things, end up in a middle seat, but at least you will still have decent legroom, and the possibility to recline your seat.

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