Is it time for the federal government to come to your defense and make air travel a more comfortable experience?
Last week a majority of the Senate said no when it shot down an amendment by New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. The amendment would have blocked airlines from reducing the “size, width, padding, and pitch” of seats. It would have also required the Federal Aviation Administration to set standards for the minimum size of seats. The amendment was tacked on to a sprawling FAA reauthorization bill, the agency that oversees the industry.
The idea of the government stepping in and providing a more comfortable travel experience is appealing. Travelers have had it rough as the width of seats shrinks. The distance between rows — also known as the pitch — has gotten tighter while Americans have grown larger. Tempers often flare and ugly fights have grabbed headlines as passengers battle for precious inches.
But this is a situation where passengers don’t need the government’s help. Like Dorothy Gale from “The Wizard of Oz,” we have always had the ability to change the way that we travel. It’s not as easy as clicking a pair of gaudy red shoes together three times. The power is in your wallet, and it’s been there all along. This is a consumer issue, not a government issue.
As long as travelers keep throwing dollars at ultra-bargain carriers such as Spirit, Frontier, and Envoy Air, the sardine-like conditions will worsen. Your credit card is shaping your future. Legacy carriers, a term used to describe behemoth airlines such as Delta and American, announced that they will start offering “last class” fares this year to keep pace with Spirit and Frontier.
Last class represents everything that has gone wrong with air travel since it was deregulated in the 1970s – unassigned seats, negative personal space, and fees for just about anything imaginable.
We complain about tight seats and ancillary fees while encouraging the behavior by turning Spirit into one of the most profitable airlines in the industry. Seeing a formula that works, other airlines follow suit. Consumers will pay a fee for a checked bag? By all means, support JetBlue’s decision to institute a fee for checked bags by paying the fee and not complaining on social media. Flyers will tolerate seats with less padding? Go ahead and buy that ticket on Southwest to show that you enjoy thinner seats.
This is all happening as fuel prices drop and airlines enjoy record profits. But I’m not going to blame the government for not stepping in. Regulation is necessary if seat sizes start posing health and safety issues. Otherwise we are not helpless victims of the changes that we’re encouraging.
A US News and World Report headline last week (“The Senate is refusing to come to the aid of airline passengers squeezed by the ever-shrinking size of their seats”) indicated that we need saving. We need saving from ourselves.
Last week I was buying tickets for a vacation to Puerto Rico and saw that the fare on Spirit was $100 cheaper than on JetBlue. I was tempted to save the $100, but decided that I’d rather get off the plane without lower back pain and an elbowed rib cage. Despite reducing seat pitch, JetBlue still offers the most space on domestic flights. I didn’t need the government to save me. As a consumer I paid a bit more, but in the process I dropped a nickel in the wishing well of more comfortable future air travel.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther